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
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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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