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Luke Letlow wins all-GOP runoff for Louisiana US House seat

December 6, 2020 GMT
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Luke Letlow, R-Start, chief of staff to exiting U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, speaks after signing up to run for Louisiana's 5th Congressional District, on July 22, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
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Luke Letlow, R-Start, chief of staff to exiting U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, speaks after signing up to run for Louisiana's 5th Congressional District, on July 22, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Republican Luke Letlow will head to Washington in January as Louisiana’s newest congressman, after winning Saturday’s runoff election for the U.S. House seat representing central and northeastern regions of the state.

Letlow will fill the seat being vacated by his boss, Republican Ralph Abraham, after three terms in office. Abraham’s chief of staff, Letlow defeated state Rep. Lance Harris in the two-man runoff competition that settled one of the nation’s last outstanding U.S. House races of the 2020 election cycle.

Harris and Letlow both ran as conservatives, with few policy distinctions between them. Instead, they ran on experience, background and character in an attack-laden few weeks after they were the top two vote-getters in the November primary and advanced to the runoff.

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“I’m ready to get to work, and I am focused on bringing jobs, investment and opportunity to our district. Each and every person across our rural landscape, whether it’s Bastrop, Bunkie, Bogalusa or all the places in between, has my word that I will never stop fighting to move Louisiana’s 5th District forward,” Letlow said in a statement.

In the only statewide race on Saturday’s ballot, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to tweak the Louisiana Constitution to allow the governor to appoint someone who lives out of state to Louisiana’s public university management boards.

In the congressional competition, the 40-year-old Letlow, from the small town of Start in Richland Parish, was always considered the frontrunner in the election. He launched his campaign with Abraham’s endorsement and outraised Harris, more than doubling Harris’ campaign cash. Letlow ran as an extension of Abraham’s tenure by saying he’d continue the work that the congressman has done in Washington.

“We probably don’t disagree on a lot of issues in terms of how we would vote,” Letlow said of he and Harris in the one TV debate held during the runoff. “But I’m a candidate that would get results.”

The 59-year-old Harris, from Alexandria, talked of his experience as a businessman running a chain of gas stations and as a pecan farmer, noting he didn’t run for a political office until about a decade ago. He contrasted that with Letlow’s background working for Abraham and former Gov. Bobby Jindal and as a lobbyist, criticizing Letlow as a Washington insider who lived off taxpayer-financed salaries.

“You have two choices: Someone who’s made a career as a politically connected employee and lobbyist or someone who is a small businessman, a farmer who has created hundreds of jobs,” Harris said. “Washington is the problem. We need a difference.”

Letlow said he knew the sprawling 5th District better than Harris and had spent years on behalf of Abraham traveling throughout its parishes. The district is largely rural, containing all or part of 24 parishes, the Mississippi River delta region and the cities of Monroe and Alexandria.

“It’s a large district, the largest in the state. I know the issues. I won’t have to catch up,” Letlow said in the TV debate.

Harris, a one-time leader of Republicans in the state House, argued that Letlow was trying to co-opt Abraham’s accomplishments as his own and trying to make voters feel like they’d be casting a ballot for the popular congressman, rather than for Letlow.

In a TV ad, Harris accused Letlow’s political friends of “trying to crown him our next congressman.” Letlow returned fire with a spot panning Harris for pushing bills that would have benefited his gas stations if they had taken effect, accusing Harris of “padding his pockets.”

The district was Louisiana’s last congressional seat to be decided after five incumbents in other districts secured victories in the primary.

Nine candidates sought the seat in November, and the field was whittled to two Republicans after no competitor topped 50% of the vote in the primary. Harris squeaked into the runoff, getting only about 400 more votes than the Democratic third-place finisher.

Also decided Saturday, voters in southeast Louisiana reelected Republican Eric Skrmetta, of Metairie, for another six-year term on the state’s utility regulatory body, the Public Service Commission. He defeated Democratic challenger Allen H. Borne Jr., of New Orleans.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte