Louisiana Republicans Might Win a Democratic Runoff
Biden allies' preferred candidate receives extensive Republican support
This piece is briefly unlocked ahead of the special election in Louisiana’s 2nd district taking place tomorrow. Paid subscribers got a first look at our findings on Wednesday.
We’re not going to bury the lede here: Republicans are trying to win a special election for Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District, a gerrymandered tentacle that collects every Black voter in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas, and which voted for Biden by a margin of over 50%. It's not that they're trying to put a Republican in this seat (though that did actually happen in this district’s predecessor, after one of the weirdest congressional elections of the 2000s.) Instead, they're coalescing behind one of the Democrats in the race: state Senator Troy Carter. With a House majority narrow enough to make every vote crucial to the Biden administration’s ability to pass things like its infrastructure package and DC statehood, the Biden orbit’s preferred candidate in a deep-blue district is eagerly accepting Republican money and Republican endorsements. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who by virtue of his 2020 primary endorsement probably bears more responsibility than any other individual for Biden becoming president, decided to get involved in this race on Carter’s behalf; erstwhile incumbent Cedric Richmond was a longtime Biden booster and confidante before his appointment to a role in the Biden administration, and he endorsed Carter before he even got around to actually resigning his seat. Maybe the White House is okay with this; Biden, after all, is no progressive. But Carter’s Republican support calls into question whether he can even be counted on to back Biden administration priorities such as corporate tax hikes and green infrastructure, both of which have already enraged the Republican-aligned corporate and fossil fuel interests investing heavily in Carter’s campaign.
For context: the special election was called in December after Cedric Richmond announced he would leave Congress to take a role in the Biden administration, and by the time filing closed in January, 24 candidates had piled in. Of that crowd, the conventional wisdom was that it would come down to state Sens. Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson (no relation). A third candidate, Baton Rouge activist Gary Chambers Jr, had some national grassroots support, but the tight timeframe of the election and lack of progressive infrastructure in Louisiana led most political observers, as well as the two frontrunners, to mostly write him off. Louisiana is one of three (soon to be four) states that hold all-party primaries, followed by runoffs. The first round was held on March 20, and, just as expected, Carter and Carter Peterson advanced. Chambers's 21% was far better than anyone had expected, yet still less than the 36% and 23% Carter and Carter Peterson received, respectively.
There are a few intra-Democratic fault lines in this race. At the more local level, you have two political organizations clashing: Karen Carter Peterson is allied with Black Organization for Leadership Development (BOLD), a well-established New Orleans political organization, while Troy Carter is being backed by Cedric Richmond’s network, which has been stronger outside the city itself. Troy Carter has the support of the Congressional Black Caucus’s old guard thanks to Richmond, while Karen Carter Peterson’s time running the Louisiana Democratic Party has hooked her up to a lot of important figures in the DNC and state parties.
For national progressive and women's groups, though, the choice has clearly been Carter Peterson. While she does support a Green New Deal and Medicare For All, Chambers was clearly the most progressive option in this race, and it’s hard to shake the impression that progressives coalesced around her primarily to beat Carter. Our Revolution—formed from the ashes of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign—endorsing Carter Peterson, a prominent Clinton surrogate who vigorously defended the role of superdelegates in the DNC, is a particularly on-the-nose example of settling.
If you’ve read our past coverage of LA-02, it’s not news to you that Troy Carter has Republican support. When a shadowy Republican super PAC called the American Jobs & Growth PAC started spending heavily on attack ads against Karen Carter Peterson, way back in the first round (she was still seen as Carter’s main opponent), we flagged it—over a month before more established outlets noticed. And Troy Carter himself is not entirely shy about having Republican backers. His campaign literature touts the support of John Alario, the Republican Senate President from 2012 to 2020. Alario is perhaps possible to explain away as a special case, a giant of the state legislature for 4 decades before he switched parties in 2010 to remain in the majority. He remains well respected on both sides of the aisle. Despite his Republican affiliation, Alario enjoyed the support of Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, and represented a district that was majority-minority by population. On his own, Alario is an endorsement that might make sense for a Democrat. But Alario is far from Carter’s only Republican supporter. There is a widespread effort by Republican politicians and donors to get Carter elected; to understand how deep it goes, you can’t look at what Carter’s been saying in public. (He will block you on social media if you mention it to him, even though he has touted some of his Republican endorsements. Unblock us, coward.) Even accounting for the one Republican super PAC wading into the race doesn’t show you the full picture, though it certainly tells you that his embrace of Republican endorsements aren’t just a tactical maneuver in a race in which Republicans will still make up a significant portion of the electorate. To understand just how much Troy Carter is the conscious choice of the Republican Party, you need to look at his donors.
The fact that LA-02 is going through a two-stage election means that, due to federal law, we know everyone who has contributed at least $200 dollars to any of the candidates before the first stage happened, on 3/20. Reviewing the records from the Federal Election Commission, Troy Carter has received money from another 9 Republican politicians in the state. The most high profile of these is Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser. Unlike Alario, Nungesser is a lifelong Republican who, in his position, has raised the specter of Democrats busing in illegal voters as justification to implement even further voting restrictions in the state, and spent years trying to convince Trump to "save" the state's Confederate monuments. Nungesser, like the other Republicans on Carter's donor rolls, is a committed partisan; also like the others, he not only contributed to Carter, but did so while there were still Republican candidates in the race running active (but doomed) campaigns.
Another contributor to Carter's campaign is former Jefferson Parish (pop. 432,000) Sheriff Newell Normand. Normand's tenure from 2007-2017 was marked by high profile clashes with Black Lives Matter activists, and he became known for tirades disparaging not just the movement, but victims of his department's shootings. He now hosts a right-wing talk radio show where he carries on the same message. Normand wading into this race brings to mind his predecessor Harry Lee's involvement in the 2006 election for this seat. Lee was an old-fashioned racist, whose official department policy for a period of time in the 80s was to detain any Black people found in white neighborhoods as a “crimefighting” measure, and who tried to buy an endorsement from David Duke when Lee ran for governor in 1995. In 2005, when the residents of New Orleans were trying to flee the flooding that would eventually kill hundreds, he sent armed officers to block one of the few bridges leading out, to prevent the mostly Black residents of that part of the city from entering his parish. Karen Carter Peterson, who was then a state representative and had yet to take the Peterson name, was sharply critical of Lee, and on a national stage. In 2006, incumbent LA-02 Rep. Bill Jefferson came under FBI investigation, and half a dozen politicians challenged him in the primary, including Karen Carter. (Also in that primary? Troy Carter.) The race went to a runoff between Karen Carter and Bill Jefferson, inspiring Lee, still bitter over her comments, to spend significant money attacking her. She won New Orleans, but lost Jefferson Parish badly, adding up to a relatively narrow defeat. Lee is dead now, but his daughter, currently serving as Jefferson Parish President, endorsed Carter in February.
Three members of the Louisiana state Senate's Republican caucus contributed to Carter's campaign: "Big Mike" Fesi, a zealous supporter of the oil and gas industry even by Louisiana standards, who is currently trying to prevent the Biden administration from enacting environmental regulations; J. Rogers Pope, has previously described disability rights enforcement as “intimidation”, and who took the time in his most recent election to let voters know that a one-time procedural vote to advance a bill doesn’t change his opposition to Medicaid expansion; and Tea Party-affiliated Bodi White, who held a rally with Trump as a candidate. Ex-State Rep. Joe Toomy left the legislature a while ago, but has stayed active in right-wing causes. Three more donors— Kirk Lepine, Clint Cointment, and Ricky Templet—have parish-level elected positions. (Parishes, we should note, are the Louisiana equivalent of counties.)
That’s just the actual elected Republican officials. There’s also the Republican donor class. Troy Carter’s campaign fillings are riddled with regular Republican donors. Big names pop up here. For instance, in the pre-primary period, only two individual donors maxed out to Carter (contributing $2,900 for the primary and then another $2,900 for a runoff.) One was a fairly anonymous man in the New Orleans suburbs, nothing interesting there. The other was Phyllis Taylor, an oil billionaire and one-time richest woman in Louisiana, who has personally given over $1,000,000 to Republican causes on the federal level, including over $100,000 to the NRCC, the official Republican campaign arm for the very same House of Representatives Carter is running for as a Democrat. Teddy Price, a nursing home magnate who has given over $500,000 to Republicans federally (and nearly as much at the local level, in a coordinated effort to buy his business the policy he wants) gave $5,000 to Carter. Joe Georgusis, a developer who’s given the GOP over $200,000 at the federal level, maxed out at $2,900 for the initial round.
The federal maximum used to be $2,800 until this year (the maximum donation is periodically adjusted for inflation), and many regular high-dollar donors still give that much out of habit. At that level, highlights include Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson, one of the key players in closing bridges leading from New Orleans during Katrina flooding; and Frederick Heebe, a landfill titan, who has donated well over $1,000,000 to Republicans at the federal level, and hundreds of thousands at the state level. (State donations landed Heebe in an ongoing racketeering trial resulting from a years-long bribery investigation; federal investigators believe his stepsister, Anne Dangle, a property manager, served as his bribery conduit.)
Go down a bit further, and the rogue’s gallery continues:
Cary and Toni Goss, $2,500 each: The Gosses are a developer couple currently being sued for fraud. They have given hundreds of thousands to Republicans, including $178,000 to Donald Trump.
Richard Zuschlag, $2,500: Zuschlag owns an ambulance service, and has given nearly $2,000,000 to Republicans at the federal level. At the state level, he’s such a prolific donor he’s landed in the state political hall of fame despite never running for office.
Keith and Ginger Myers, $1,000 each: An extremely prolific Republican donor couple (to the point it’s gotten him in trouble before). Frank uses his perch as company owner to propagandize about Republicans to his employees. He also routinely donated to Democratic incumbents facing progressive challengers.
Frank Stewart, $1,000: an investment banker billionaire in New Orleans who has given over half a million to Republicans, and recently launched a public effort to save Confederate monuments in the city.
That’s only a handful of them. During the primary—when it wasn’t even yet a runoff, when there were still Republicans in the race—Carter got contributions of at least $1,000 apiece from dozens of big money Republican donors. I identified 67 (three of which are also on the list of politicians) who gave to his campaign, but with a less stringent definition, that number would be closer to 80. Writer Tyler Bridges at the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate recently identified the 90 top contributors to Trump and the Republican Party from Louisiana. Ten of them are on Carter’s donor list, and just one of those 90 donated to both Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson. Another of the 90, Kirk Fisher, gave to her but not him, and Fisher also appears on the list of top Democratic donors, at a higher dollar amount than he does on the Republican side, so calling him a Republican donor is dubious at best. (No one on that list gave to Gary Chambers Jr.) A lot of contributions to Garret Graves and Steve Scalise also show up on the FEC history of Republican donors to Carter, but that’s likely to be true of most Republicans with large pocketbooks in the state. The only real similarity here is that just about everyone flagged is a Louisiana resident.
Coziness with Republicans would in many ways make Troy Carter a true heir to previous Rep. Cedric Richmond, whose support Carter is touting heavily in this race. Richmond is famously friendly with fellow Congressman Steve “David Duke without the baggage” Scalise, and is more than willing to endorse Republicans over Democrats in tight races. Karen Carter Peterson, who ran the state Democratic Party and has been willing to throw elbows in the past, would be a break from the Richmond tradition of Democrats that even Republicans can get behind. One would think her approach of hard-nosed partisanship would be welcome news to the Biden administration, as every Democrat who entertains plainly insincere appeals from Republicans endangers the passage of even the most modest Biden priorities—but apparently not.
Is this an intentional effort by Carter to appeal to Republican politicians and donors? Is this being organized by outside conservative forces? Is it merely a coincidental agreement by Republicans that he would be considerably more favorable than any alternatives? There’s no real telling. Either way, it tells you all you need to know: Louisiana Republicans badly want Carter in Congress, and they may get their wish this weekend.