Louisiana congressional runoff election becomes GOP slugfest

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District runoff is a Republican-vs-Republican election, where the candidates for the seat being vacated by GOP incumbent Ralph Abraham have few policy distinctions, so they’ve moved to attacks on experience and background.

State Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria, and Abraham’s chief of staff Luke Letlow, from the small town of Start in Richland Parish, are competing for the job representing the sprawling district across northeast and central Louisiana.

They have launched attack ads against each other, and the lone TV debate of the runoff largely involved criticism rather than solid policy plans. Both are running on conservative platforms.

Letlow launched his campaign with the endorsement of Abraham and has the advantage in the runoff, both because Abraham remains popular in the district and because Letlow raised more campaign cash than Harris.

The 40-year-old Letlow has positioned himself as offering a sort of fourth term for Abraham by continuing the work the Republican congressman has done in Washington. Letlow suggests he was an integral part of crafting Abraham’s legislation and is more familiar with the district’s needs because of his time in Abraham’s office.

“I want the opportunity to continue so much of the great work that we were able to do,” Letlow said in the debate hosted by KNOE-TV.

Harris, 59, a one-time head of the state House Republican delegation, said Letlow is overstating his role in the congressman’s office. Harris reminds voters that Abraham isn’t on the ballot.

“You were just in the shadows,” Harris told Letlow in the debate. “I would like for you to quit trying to take credit for things Dr. Abraham has done.”

Letlow replied: “I’ve been a partner with Dr. Abraham.”

Harris describes Letlow as someone with little life experience who has only worked for politicians or as a lobbyist — in contrast to Harris’ background as a farmer and owner of a chain of gas stations and convenience stores. Harris notes he didn’t run for elected office until he was 50 years old.

“Washington has enough career politicians and career people,” Harris said.

Harris slammed Letlow in a TV ad for working for politicians, including former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was highly unpopular when he left office. The ad, which shows Harris standing next to a tractor, says Letlow’s “political friends are trying to crown him our next congressman,” but that “life experience matters.”

Letlow said those political jobs show his “passion was helping people, and I make no apologies for that.”

He responded to Harris’ ad with a 30-second television spot of his own panning Harris for voting for tax increases that balanced Louisiana’s budget and noting that Harris pushed bills that would have benefited his gas stations if they had taken effect. The ad accuses Harris of “padding his pockets, costing us more.”

The 5th District is Louisiana’s last congressional seat to be decided this election cycle after five incumbents in other districts secured victories in the November primary. But without an incumbent, no candidate among the nine on the ballot topped 50% of the vote in the 5th District primary.

Letlow received 33% of the primary vote. Harris squeaked into the runoff with 17%, getting only 400-plus more votes than the Democratic third-place finisher.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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