How the ‘Duck Dynasty’ Candidate Beat the Republican Establishment

Vance McAllister’s surprisingly decisive victory shows how much voters are clamoring for political outsiders.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 09: Jase Robertson and Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty visit 'Late Night With Jimmy Fallon' at Rockefeller Center on September 9, 2013 in New York City.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
Nov. 18, 2013, 5:26 a.m.

There’s been a lot of in­sta-com­ment­ary about the sig­ni­fic­ance of Re­pub­lic­an busi­ness­man Vance Mc­Al­lister’s sur­pris­ing vic­tory over GOP state Sen. Neil Riser in a Louisi­ana spe­cial elec­tion to suc­ceed Rep. Rod­ney Al­ex­an­der. Many are us­ing it to pro­claim the grow­ing mo­mentum of prag­mat­ism over tea party con­ser­vat­ism with­in the Re­pub­lic­an party ““ com­ing on the heels of es­tab­lish­ment-fa­vor­ite Brad­ley Byrne win­ning a Re­pub­lic­an House primary in Alabama this month. Oth­ers saw it as an un­likely vic­tory for Obama­care in red Amer­ica, be­cause the los­ing can­did­ate por­trayed his op­pon­ent as a sup­port­er of the pres­id­ent’s health care law for sup­port­ing Medi­caid ex­pan­sion.

But the real­ity is dif­fer­ent. Obama­care is still deeply un­pop­u­lar in north­east Louisi­ana, and Mc­Al­lister op­posed the health care law. And Riser, the los­ing con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ate, was the one backed by many of the prag­mat­ic, es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures.

In­stead, Mc­Al­lister’s sur­pris­ingly de­cis­ive up­set il­lus­trates three max­ims: There’s no bet­ter time to be a polit­ic­al out­sider, Medi­caid ex­pan­sion is pop­u­lar, even with Re­pub­lic­ans, and Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal’s pres­id­en­tial pro­spects aren’t look­ing good.

1. Be­ing a polit­ic­al in­sider is tox­ic. Riser was en­dorsed by House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor and re­ceived be­hind-the-scenes sup­port from Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal. Mean­while, Mc­Al­lister was backed by Wil­lie Robertson, the star of “Duck Dyn­asty.” His abil­ity to por­tray him­self as an out­sider when Con­gress holds an ap­prov­al rat­ing in the single-di­gits was Mc­Al­lister’s most power­ful polit­ic­al as­set. It’s no co­in­cid­ence that Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er said mem­bers of Con­gress aren’t vi­able 2016 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates.

Tea party sen­ti­ment is ideo­lo­gic­ally-driv­en, but it’s also fueled by the sen­ti­ment that priv­ileged mem­bers of Con­gress are dis­con­nec­ted from the con­cerns of every­day Amer­ic­ans. Even House Demo­crats re­cog­nized in 2012 that, to have a suc­cess­ful elec­tion, they had to re­cruit can­did­ates with ex­per­i­ence in the private sec­tor out­side of gov­ern­ment. That’s one reas­on why Demo­crats Michelle Nunn and Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes are run­ning com­pet­it­ively in solidly-Re­pub­lic­an states against Wash­ing­ton in­siders. Demo­crats are work­ing over­time to por­tray them as fresh faces try­ing to change the status quo; Re­pub­lic­ans are op­tim­ist­ic the na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic agenda will doom their cam­paigns.

2. Medi­caid ex­pan­sion is pop­u­lar, even if Obama­care isn’t. Riser was a Jin­dal aco­lyte in the state le­gis­lature who saw first-hand the gov­ernor’s ap­prov­al rat­ing dip as he op­posed the ex­pan­sion of Medi­caid. That’s the di­lemma Re­pub­lic­ans face: As un­pop­u­lar as the pres­id­ent’s health care law is, even Re­pub­lic­an voters like the free be­ne­fits that come with Medi­caid ex­pan­sion.

That’s why most swing-state and blue-state Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors have jumped aboard the Medi­caid ex­pan­sion band­wag­on, and Demo­crats have used the is­sue as a cudgel against those who haven’t. Ohio GOP Gov. John Kasich’s sup­port of Medi­caid ex­pan­sion back home has be­come Obama’s new fa­vor­ite talk­ing point, a polit­ic­al ne­ces­sity for him as he faces a com­pet­it­ive re-elec­tion next year.

3. Don’t bet on Jin­dal in 2016. Jin­dal spent valu­able polit­ic­al cap­it­al to help an ally, and his pre­ferred can­did­ate got trounced. Riser an­nounced im­me­di­ately after Al­ex­an­der’s resig­na­tion de­cision, and Jin­dal set an early spe­cial elec­tion date to im­prove his aco­lyte’s chances. Two weeks ago, the home-state pa­per, cit­ing Jin­dal’s in­volve­ment in the race, wrote: “Riser would have to pull out the stops to lose this one.” He did, and it wasn’t close. Mc­Al­lister’s de­cis­ive vic­tory sug­gests that Jin­dal has lim­ited cap­it­al with Re­pub­lic­ans at home, not an en­cour­aging sign if he plans to run for pres­id­ent in 2016.

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