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Vance McAllister’s Days in Congress Are Probably Numbered

Rep. Vance McAllister of Louisiana is feeling the heat after he was caught on camera kissing a married staffer, with some Republican Party officials calling on the congressman of almost five months to resign. But what are McAllister’s chances if he resists the calls to step down and runs again this year?

According to The Washington Post, 15 of 38 elected federal officials caught in a sex scandal in the past 40 years have resigned or retired. Of the 23 who ran for re-election, 15 won, or 65 percent. That re-election rate is much lower than the overall re-election rate for federal office holders, which is close to 90 percent in most years. Still, sex scandals are not always fatal, as Sen. David Vitter, also a Louisiana Republican, can attest.

Assessing McAllister’s odds is complicated for two reasons. One is a statistical issue: There are probably some selection effects for which scandal-plagued candidates choose to run for re-election and which do not. Those who commit the most unforgivable indiscretions — for example, cheating on a wife who is dying of cancer — are presumably more likely not to run. With that said, McAllister’s scandal seems fairly typical, and at least not in the John Edwards category of radioactivity.

However, the nature of Louisiana’s jungle primary system adds a further complication. In Louisiana, any number of candidates, regardless of party identification, run against each other in a first round. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the two with the highest vote totals face each other in a runoff.

When McAllister ran for his seat in a special election last year, he finished second behind another Republican, Neil Riser, and only 3 percentage points ahead of Democrat Jamie Mayo in the first round of voting. He was also just 7 points ahead of a third Republican, Clyde Holloway. But McAllister beat Riser by 19 points in the runoff after Mayo, Holloway and a number of other candidates were eliminated.

If last year’s election were replayed, now with McAllister facing an electoral penalty because of his sex scandal, he probably wouldn’t make it to Congress. A 2011 study of U.S. senators by Nicholas Chad Long of St. Edward’s University in Texas estimated that immoral behavior lowers the vote share of incumbents by roughly 7 percentage points, on average. If McAllister had seen 7 fewer points in the special election, he would have finished third or fourth in the primary and missed the runoff.

The problem with applying Long’s 7-point estimate here is that it’s drawn from two-way general election races, when each party has one nominee. In a general election, many Democratic and Republican voters have strong partisan and policy preferences that can override any personal reservations they might have about a candidate. When there are multiple candidates from the same party competing for the seat, as in a jungle primary, voters can be pickier, finding candidates they like personally and on the issues, too. The same might hold in a runoff were both candidates were from the same party.

McAllister’s chances of winning re-election depend on a lack of serious competition from other Republicans: If he were to survive the jungle primary and make the runoff against a Democrat, he’d probably win. (Mitt Romney carried McAllister’s conservative district by 23 points in 2012, so even a scandal-plagued Republican would have a good chance of winning in that circumstance.)

McAllister is now the incumbent — something he wasn’t last year. That’s one thing working in his favor. But McAllister is unlikely to get a free pass given how competitive his seat was last year; instead, local officials expect Riser or another credible Republican to challenge him.

Candidates have survived worse scandals — especially in Louisiana, where the former governor Edwin Edwards once claimed he couldn’t lose re-election unless “caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.” Still, given the chances that McAllister will resign, or that he’ll run again but finish third or worse in the jungle primary, or that he’ll survive the primary but lose the runoff, he’s an underdog to keep his seat.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.


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