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What To Watch In Louisiana’s Two Special Elections

We’re barely two months removed from the last election of 2020, but Saturday marks the first congressional elections of the 2022 midterms: a pair of special elections for Louisiana’s 2nd and 5th districts. While there’s little question about which party will ultimately win each seat — the 2nd District is solidly Democratic, the 5th solidly Republican — that’s not why these elections are interesting.

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Always a state that marches to its own beat, Louisiana holds elections a little differently than most (as the Saturday election date might imply): Rather than pitting a Republican against a Democrat, the two elections are what’s known as jungle primaries, where all candidates, regardless of party, run on the same ballot. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff election on April 24. So the big questions going into Saturday’s elections are which wing of the Democratic Party will come out on top in the 2nd — and whether a second round of voting will even be necessary in the 5th. 

Louisiana 2nd

Back in November, 75 percent of voters in Louisiana’s 2nd District supported Joe Biden for president — but none did more to help Biden win than Rep. Cedric Richmond, Biden’s campaign co-chair who helped convince him to run and guided him through some of the toughest moments of the campaign. Biden rewarded Richmond with one of the earliest appointments to his administration, and on Jan. 15 the five-term representative resigned from Congress to become the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

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And Richmond’s departure has left a power vacuum in this New Orleans-based district that local politicians have rushed to fill: Fifteen candidates, including eight Democrats and four Republicans, are on the ballot. However, two clear front-runners with similar profiles — even similar names — have emerged. Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson (no relation) are both Democratic state senators from New Orleans. Both have sought a promotion to Congress in the past (they even ran against each other for this seat in 2006) and are longtime players in the Democratic political establishment, but they hail from different factions of that establishment.

Local power brokers have largely lined up behind Carter, the highest-ranking Democrat in the Louisiana state Senate. And according to Roll Call, 76 percent of the $519,000 that Carter raised in January and February came from donors who live in Louisiana. Carter also has arguably the campaign’s most valuable endorsement: that of Richmond himself. He’s aligned with the Biden-Richmond wing of the party on policy, too: He has said he prefers a public option to single-payer health care, and while he thinks the Green New Deal is “a good blueprint,” he doesn’t think it’s realistic to implement in one go. On the campaign trail, he has also emphasized his ability to build relationships with people of all political stripes.

By contrast, Peterson is more progressive on policy and isn’t afraid to make waves: “When I go to Washington, my job is not to agree with Steve Scalise all the time,” she told The Advocate. But the former chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party is also a pragmatist willing to compromise to achieve her goals (for instance, she is fine phasing in single-payer health care over time). Her tenure as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee has also lent a decidedly national flavor to her list of endorsers, headlined by Stacey Abrams. Per Roll Call, at least half of the $450,000 she raised in January and February came from outside Louisiana; the Democratic women’s group Emily’s List has also spent $457,000 to help her get elected. Locally, Peterson is also aligned with BOLD, an influential political organization founded by her father that frequently clashes with Richmond and his allies.

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Polls have consistently found Carter in first place with 23-35 percent and Peterson in second with 17-24 percent. But polls of House special elections have such large margins of error that it’s possible another candidate will leapfrog Peterson or Carter for a spot in the all-but-guaranteed runoff election. The likeliest to surprise is probably activist Democrat Gary Chambers, who is third in both January-February fundraising ($304,000) and the polls (6-13 percent). Chambers shares Peterson’s progressive views but better embodies the movement’s outsider, grassroots ethos: He gained thousands of social-media followers when a video went viral of him excoriating a white school board member for shopping online during a hearing over renaming a high school named for Robert E. Lee, and 74 percent of his January-February fundraising total came from small donors, far more than Peterson (14 percent) or Carter (2 percent).

Notably, Carter, Peterson and Chambers are all Black, meaning there’s an excellent chance that the 2nd District will continue to have a Black representative. That’s important for a district whose population is 61 percent Black and whose former representative was chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Louisiana 5th

While Richmond’s departure was a long-expected development, the vacancy in Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District was unexpected. In fact, the general election runoff to succeed retiring Republican Rep. Ralph Abraham had just wrapped in early December, but then tragedy struck: GOP Rep.-elect Luke Letlow announced on Dec. 18 that he had tested positive for COVID-19, and just 11 days later, complications from the disease claimed his life at the age of 41.

Given the district’s strong Republican lean — former President Trump won it by 30 points — and the deep GOP bench, many Republicans eyed the special while waiting to see if Abraham might run for his old seat. But then Julia Letlow, Letlow’s widow, announced her plans to run in January. Accompanied by endorsements from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, her campaign deterred other big names from getting in. Letlow’s candidacy may have been boosted by the tragic circumstances surrounding it, but her front-runner status owes a great deal to her own credentials as an administrator at the University of Louisiana Monroe, where she was also a finalist to become university president last year. Tellingly, Letlow had raised nearly $700,000 by the end of February, almost 10 times what the next-closest contender had collected.

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As such, the main question for Saturday is whether Letlow will win an outright majority to avoid a runoff. There’s no public polling, but given her fundraising and backing from GOP leaders, including Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence, Letlow is near-certain to finish first. Nevertheless, there are 12 candidates overall, so the rest of the field — including eight no-name Republicans — could attract just enough votes to keep Letlow below the 50 percent mark she needs to win. But if there is a runoff, Letlow will likely face Democrat Sandra “Candy” Christophe, who ran for the seat in 2020 and is the only Democrat running in the special, meaning she will probably attract most of the 30 percent or so of the district’s vote that is Democratic. But in such a heavily Republican seat, a Letlow-Christophe runoff would be a mere formality.

In other words, regardless of whether it’s after Saturday or an April 24 runoff, Letlow looks to be on her way to Congress, which would push the record number of Republican women in the House to 31. Letlow’s prospective rise to Congress, sparked by tragedy, echoes that of another famous Louisianian: the late Rep. Lindy Boggs, widow of Democratic House Majority Leader Hale Boggs. In October 1972, Hale Boggs was campaigning in Alaska with Democratic Rep. Nick Begich — former Alaska Sen. Mark Begich’s father — when their flight disappeared, never to be found. Boggs won reelection posthumously, but the House declared the seat vacant, precipitating a March 1973 special election won by his late wife Lindy Boggs. It remains to be seen if Letlow will stick around Congress for many years — she has said she intends to seek a full term in 2022 — but if she did, that would be reminiscent of Boggs, who went on to represent the New Orleans area until 1991.

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Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.