Trump-backed Julia Letlow wins special election for seat late husband won

Luke Letlow died of COVID-19 complications days before he was to be sworn in

Julia Letlow won the special election in Louisiana’s 5th District, a seat her late husband won in December but never got to fill because he died of COVID-19 complications. (Brett Duke/AP file photo)
Julia Letlow won the special election in Louisiana’s 5th District, a seat her late husband won in December but never got to fill because he died of COVID-19 complications. (Brett Duke/AP file photo)
Posted March 20, 2021 at 10:24pm

Louisiana Republican Julia Letlow is heading to Congress after winning a special House election Saturday for the seat her late husband won — but never got to fill. She is the 48th widow appointed or elected to succeed her husband in Congress. 

Letlow, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, was leading a 12-candidate all-party field in the deep-red 5th District with 62 percent of the vote when The Associated Press called the race at 9:15 p.m Central time. By clearing 50 percent, she was able to avoid an April runoff. Candy Christophe, the only Democrat in the race, was in second place with 29 percent.

Letlow’s husband, Luke, died of complications of COVID-19 in December, weeks after winning a runoff election and days before he was scheduled to be sworn into office.

“This is an incredible moment and it is truly hard to put into words,” Letlow said in a statement. “What was born out of the terrible tragedy of losing my husband, Luke, has become my mission in his honor to carry the torch and serve the good people of Louisiana's 5th District.”

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer called Letlow “a powerful, conservative voice for the people of Louisiana.”

“Julia has overcome tremendous adversity and is an inspiration to all of us,” he said in a statement after her win.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said it was a “remarkable accomplishment” that Letlow was able to secure an outright win in the 12-candidate field.

The other special election Saturday is headed to an April 24 runoff after none of the 15 candidates got more than 50 percent of the vote. Democratic state Sens. Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson were leading and progressive outsider Gary Chambers was running third in the all-party race to replace Democrat Cedric L. Richmond, who resigned to take a post in the White House. 

Letlow, an administrator at the University of Louisiana Monroe, campaigned on continuing her husband’s conservative agenda. That included a commitment to the interests of the rural district, support for farmers and loggers, a focus on development and support for infrastructure. 

“Julia Letlow is outstanding and so necessary to help save our Second Amendment, at the Border, and for our Military and vets,” Trump said in a statement Saturday morning. “Louisiana, get out and vote today — she will never disappoint. Julia has my Complete and Total Endorsement.”

Letlow is the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Louisiana. She joins a record class of female Republicans in the 117th Congress — at 38, the most ever, with 30 currently serving in the House and eight in the Senate.

The 5th District, which hugs the Arkansas and Mississippi borders and includes much of the northeastern part of the state, backed Trump over Democrat Joe Biden by more than 30 points in November, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Republican Ralph Abraham held the seat for three terms before retiring last cycle after an unsuccessful bid for governor. Luke Letlow, who had been his chief of staff, won a Dec. 5 runoff for the seat with 62 percent of the vote . 

Christophe, who founded a nonprofit to help people find housing, jobs and other support after incarceration, ran for the seat last cycle, narrowly missing the runoff. While 40 percent of the district’s registered voters are Democrats, Christophe raised just $70,000 through Feb. 28, dwarfed by Letlow’s $893,000.

Christophe campaigned on the possibility of becoming the state’s first Black congresswoman — Peterson, in the 2nd District race, is also a Black woman. 

She also campaigned on representing the district’s rural interests, but from a progressive perspective. She promised not to “take away” constituents’ guns, but to put protections in place to ensure that certain people with mental illnesses could not possess weapons. She referred to her own experience with poverty and her family’s background in agriculture and the military to show that she understood constituents' economic concerns during the coronavirus pandemic, the “negative effects” tariffs have on farmers, and veterans’ needs. She also cited her 25-year career in the health care industry to explain her support for Medicaid expansion. 

Letlow knows the district well after campaigning with her husband and, earlier, while meeting with constituents of his former boss. 

Letlow described her husband’s death as a “catastrophic” turning point in her life that jolted her back to the academic research she completed 20 years ago, when she sought to make sense of her brother’s death in a car accident by writing a doctoral dissertation about the way families establish rituals to make meaning of grief.