Published December 20, 2015
Vance McAllister, a political newcomer with the backing of the popular "Duck Dynasty" TV family, was elected as Louisiana's newest member of Congress Saturday night.
According to the Louisiana Secretary of State's website, McAllister led establishment candidate Neil Riser 59.7 percent to 40.3 percent -- a difference of over 17,500 votes -- with 976 of a possible 981 precincts reporting.
McAllister advanced to this weekend’s election to face off against Riser after an October contest with more than a dozen other candidates from both political parties -- in what is known as a “jungle primary.”
The seat in Louisiana's 5th Congressional District was left open when GOP Rep. Rodney Alexander resigned this summer to take a Cabinet post in GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration.
The largely rural district along the Mississippi River delta is dotted with farmland and plagued by poverty. The 5th District covers all or part of 24 parishes, from northeast and central Louisiana into southeastern parishes bordering Mississippi.
In last month's election, Riser finished ahead of McAllister, taking 33 percent of the vote compared to 18 percent. But neither got the 50 percent needed to be declared the outright winner.
Many GOP races since 2010 have in some form been a Tea Party-vs.-establishment candidate showdown.
However, Riser doubled as both the establishment candidate and Tea Party favorite, promoting his experience but promising strident opposition to President Obama.
McAllister, meanwhile, embraced his outsider status, complete with an endorsement from his close friend Phil Robertson, the patriarch of television's hit series "Duck Dynasty." McAllister ran as the more measured pragmatist, criticizing Washington gridlock and hyper-partisanship, particularly on Obama's health care law.
"Plain and simple, this was Riser's election to lose. Riser was the favorite going into the evening. He had the dollars. He had the endorsement of the Republican establishment. He had a strong showing in the primary. Yet, he lost it," Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, told the Associated Press.
An ally of Jindal, Riser had his campaign up and running almost immediately after Alexander announced his resignation in September. The timing prompted cries of favoritism, though Jindal, Alexander and Riser deny any collusion.
Riser touted his decades-long experience as a businessman in the funeral industry while arguing his insider experience has led to significant legislative accomplishments such as helping get a state constitutional amendment passed that strengthened gun rights.
"I see a very clear distinction in the fact that I've made the votes," Riser said. "These aren't just talking points for me."
He was endorsed by the Tea Party of Louisiana and FreedomWorks, a Tea Party-aligned national political action group.
Conservative activists said it's McAllister, who's never held public office and noted during the campaign that he'd never even visited Washington, that they worry would be the go-along-to-get-along congressman who isn't conservative enough.
McAllister, who spent at least $800,000 of his own money on his campaign, according to the Federal Election Comission, countered eagerly with his newcomer status.
"I am not part of the establishment; I'm just part of the district," he said.
When Robertson endorsed his friend, he explained that McAllister has "the least political experience."
Despite that profile, McAllister didn't push the "blow the whole place up" mantra that some GOP primary candidates have offered in similar conservative enclaves around the country.
While he is critical of the atmosphere in Washington, he doesn't blame it exclusively on Obama. He also points a finger at House Republicans' 40-plus votes to repeal Obama's health insurance overhaul.
"I will vote to repeal it if there's a vote right now today," he said in a recent debate.
"But the truth of the matter is you stand on a platform and pander for votes on something that can't be repealed," he told Riser.
McAllister says Republicans should show the president respect and that the best course on health care is to work on improving Obama's signature law since he was re-elected and Democrats still control the Senate.
Both candidates described themselves as conservatives – opposing abortion, favoring strong gun rights and criticizing Obama's policies generally. Both criticize the levels of federal spending and debt.
"I don't think there's a lot of difference in the policy, per se, because we're both true conservatives both fiscally and socially," McAllister said.
McAllister will take office in time to vote on the next round of budget resolutions in January and, almost certainly, a vote soon after on whether to raise the nation's borrowing limit. Those votes were set up by an October deal to end a partial government shutdown driven by GOP opposition to the health care law.
Riser said he opposes efforts to raise the debt ceiling, saying spending should be cut instead. McAllister wasn't so absolute. He conceded he'd be willing to raise the debt ceiling if the increase was coupled with federal spending cuts and a long-term deficit reduction plan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.