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LA CD 3 runoff has barnburner makings

In a year presumed for outsiders, the ultimate insider may win Louisiana’s Third Congressional District because of the votes of those typically least connected to the political process – if they turn out.

Last week, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle led the field in this contest. The former Democrat/now Republican not only has served in cabinet posts under two governors, but also led a parish and sits on the Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors. Few in the state can match the breadth and length of his political career.

Yet he outpaced a raw amateur by just three percentage points, as law enforcement officer Republican Clay Higgins racked up 26 percent of the vote, way ahead of the third-place candidate, a white Democrat who ran a fairly unserious campaign that benefitted as a default for Democrat voters at nine percent. Right behind him came a black Democrat, followed by three Republicans who shelled out big bucks only for each to score in single digits.

Higgins shot ahead of the default Democrats and bigger GOP spenders due to his celebrity status from uncompromising public service announcements for his former employer (from whom he parted on bad terms) that became viewed worldwide, joined by tough talk on the campaign trail. Surprisingly, his hanging close to Angelle’s total likely eroded the latter’s support more significantly than anyone observing the contest could have imagined.

That Angelle far outspent any other candidate yet could not crack 30 percent of the vote typically would mean he faces uncertain prospects in the runoff. With such resources and name recognition from his recent gubernatorial candidacy that he did not have to spend to achieve, it seemed realistic that he could win without a runoff, or at the least run much better than he did. Conventional wisdom has it that a large portion of those who did not vote for a candidate like him in the general election would vote for his opponent in the runoff, and with just a base of 29 percent, big trouble lies ahead.

However, analyzing precinct samples for distinct voter blocs suggest that Angelle can slide by. Reviewing the Third District, 75 districts had at least 95 percent white registration, 10 had at least 95 percent black registration (mostly Democrats), 11 had at least majority white Democrat registration, 44 had at least half Republican registration, and 11 had a plurality of other/no-party registrants. Proportions of the vote obtained by each among these precincts can indicate which way the runoff could go.

Among whites, Angelle and Higgins scored about the same, a little over a third each of the electorate but with Higgins about four points better. Higgins also had a small edge with white Democrats with both at nearly two-fifths of that vote, while Angelle did slightly better among Republicans with both getting about a quarter of the portion.

But with blacks and other/no-party voters. Angelle held meaningful advantages. He got about a sixth of the black vote, four times what Higgins tallied, and led Higgins 36-24 among those registered neither Democrat nor Republican. The former figure seems logical in that Angelle used to be a Democrat and Higgins gained his fame with hard-nosed comments about criminals who disproportionately are black. By contrast, the latter might seem unusual, as voters identifying that way most often are the least engaged politically and therefore would seem most susceptible to outsider appeals like Higgins’.

All things equal, that could give Angelle the cushion necessary to hold on. Yet the problem he will encounter is runoff contests in December experience significant roll-off from the general election, as indicated by the 2012 runoff contest between two Republicans where turnout plunged an astonishing 70 percent. The 2016 version likely won’t fall that far as a competitive Senate race accompanies this contest, unlike in 2012, but the least engaged voters – typically minorities and other/no-party registrants – disproportionately roll off, the only demographic groups where Angelle had a clear advantage.

Angelle will have to stimulate a relatively large turnout for this kind of race in order to win, and he does have the resources to try this, as well as to develop negative publicity about Higgins to discourage showing up for him. At the same time, Republicans in particular may feel compelled to come out to vote against Angelle as payback for his failure to support Sen. David Vitter in last year’s governor’s race that effectively handed the office to Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Rather than the rout in Angelle’s favor initially believed, this race will go down to the wire.

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