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.