Early voting starts Saturday in Louisiana special elections to replace Democrat Cedric L. Richmond, who resigned to join the White House staff, and for the seat won by Republican Luke J. Letlow, who died in December of complications from COVID-19 weeks before he was to be sworn in for his first term.
Both races have attracted crowded fields, with 15 candidates vying to succeed Richmond in the solid Democratic 2nd District and 12 names on the ballot in the 5th, a deep-red seat that was represented by GOP Rep. Ralph Abraham for three terms until his retirement last year.
Candidates of all parties will run on the same ballot, and the winner when voting ends March 20 needs to get more than 50 percent to claim the seat outright. Otherwise, the top-two finishers will meet in a runoff on April 24 — which seems likely, given the large fields.
Democratic legislators face off
Early attention in both races has focused on a handful of candidates.
In the 2nd District, which was drawn to take in Black voters in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Democrats have largely consolidated around state Sens. Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson, both of whom have decades of experience in Louisiana politics and a long list of high-profile endorsements. They are the only candidates airing television ads so far.
Carter, the state Senate minority leader, has campaigned as better positioned to bring federal resources to the district, in which 21 percent of residents are below the federal poverty line, because he got a coveted endorsement from Richmond, who worked with both Carter and Carter Peterson in the state legislature.
“I will have the ear of the guy who has the ear of the president of the United States,” Carter has said.
Carter told CQ Roll Call that his track record building relationships and passing bipartisan legislation in the state Senate was a factor in Richmond’s decision to back him. “In congressional halls, relationships matter,” he said. “Being able to work with people matters.”
He also pointed to his experience in local government as a top aide to New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy in the 1980s and a member of the city council in the mid-1990s.
“That’s demonstrative of someone who doesn’t sit in the Ivory Tower,” he said. “That’s demonstrative of a leader that likes to to be in contact with people. And the strength of having empathy for the people that you serve is very important.”
A poll of 450 “chronic” voters released by Carter's campaign this week had him leading Carter Peterson 28 percent to 19 percent, with Baton Rouge activist Gary Chambers in third at 6 percent.
But Carter Peterson noted that she also has a long relationship with Richmond. Her opponent may have golfed with Richmond, she said, but she fished with him. Carter Peterson served as the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party for eight years, ending her term in 2020, and as vice chair of civic engagement and voter protection at the Democratic National Committee, where she developed relationships with national party leaders.
She has the endorsement of Georgia voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, Higher Heights for America PAC, which supports progressive Black women, and EMILY’s List, which supports Democratic women committed to protecting abortion rights.
Women Vote, the independent expenditure arm of EMILY’s List, has spent $457,000 on media and mailings supporting Carter Peterson and opposing Carter, according to disclosures with the Federal Elections Commission. American Jobs and Growth PAC, a conservative Republican super PAC, spent $32,000 on digital ads opposing Carter Peterson.
While Carter supports LGBTQ rights and raising the minimum wage and says he has championed womens’ rights, Carter Peterson has defined herself as more progressive. She also stresses the importance of electing a woman in a state where female lawmakers have been traditionally underrepresented. She would be the first Black woman to represent Louisiana in Congress.
“Black women are the soul of the Democratic Party and have saved our country from Donald Trump,” she said. “It's time that Louisiana ... sent an African American woman to Congress, and I hope to be that person.”
Carter Peterson’s campaign said Wednesday that she has raised $750,000 since entering the race. Carter’s campaign has not released recent fundraising totals, which are due to the FEC by Monday.
Chambers, who is running to her left, attracted a massive social media following for a video calling out a school board member for allegedly internet shopping during a meeting about racist school names. He says he has raised $300,000 from over 10,000 donors.
That’s enough to make him competitive in a special election, where turnout is generally low and unpredictable. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Desiree Ontiveros, a New Orleans businesswoman who owns Bad Ass Balloon Co., also shared an endorsement with Carter Peterson from the New Orleans Coalition, which supports progressive candidates.
The state GOP’s preferred candidate is Claston Bernard, an Olympic decathlete and author.
Widow seeks husband’s seat
In the 5th District, the state GOP has backed Julia Letlow, Luke Letlow’s widow. She has spent the majority of her career as a high-level administrator at the University of Louisiana Monroe and the Tulane University School of Medicine.
Letlow has campaigned on continuing her husband’s conservative agenda and commitment to representing the interests of the rural district, including support for farmers and loggers, focus on rural development and support for building infrastructure. She also shares her husband’s familiarity with the region, where the couple lived and travelled extensively while Luke Letlow served as Abraham’s chief of staff.
“She was always at Luke’s side when he was traveling around,” said John M. Couvillon, a state-based Republican consultant. Julia Letlow’s campaign declined an interview request.
Letlow faces four other Republicans in the special election, along with one independent and one Democrat, Sandra “Candy” Christophe.
Christophe, who founded a nonprofit to help people find housing, jobs and other support after incarceration, ran in 2020 and narrowly missed a runoff. This time she is the only Democrat on the ballot, and Couvillon said she could consolidate support from the district’s left-leaning Black population, who make up more than 30 percent of registered voters.