North La. race highlights GOP divide

by Walter Pierce

But the battle between political newcomer Vance McAllister and state Sen. Neil Riser isn't tea party outsider vs. the chamber of commerce politician.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The Republican Party's identity crisis is veering off script in a special congressional election in northern Louisiana.

Sure, conservative activists and the mainstream establishment are involved in the two-Republican runoff Saturday in the 5th Congressional District. But the battle between political newcomer Vance McAllister and state Sen. Neil Riser isn't tea party outsider vs. the chamber of commerce politician.

Instead, Riser doubles as both the establishment candidate and the tea party favorite, promoting his experience but promising strident opposition to President Barack Obama, who is unpopular in the district.

McAllister, meanwhile, has embraced his outsider status, complete with an endorsement from his close friend Phil Robertson, the patriarch of television's hit series "Duck Dynasty." McAllister is running as the more measured pragmatist, criticizing Washington gridlock and hyper-partisanship, particularly on Obama's health care law.

An ally of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, Riser had his campaign up and running almost immediately after Rep. Rodney Alexander announced his resignation this summer for a spot in Jindal's Cabinet. The timing prompted cries of favoritism, though Jindal, Alexander and Riser deny any collusion.

As a candidate, Riser has tried to cut his connections both ways.

On the one hand, he focuses on his decades as a businessman in the funeral industry. At the same time, he frames his insider experience as proof of his effectiveness, noting legislative accomplishments like a state constitutional amendment to strengthen gun rights.

"I see a very clear distinction in the fact that I've made the votes," Riser said. "These aren't just talking points for me."

He has endorsements from the Tea Party of Louisiana and FreedomWorks, a tea party-aligned national political action group. Conservative activists say it's McAllister, who's never held public office, that they worry would be the go-along-to-get-along congressman who isn't conservative enough.

McAllister counters eagerly with his newcomer status.

"I am not part of the establishment; I'm just part of the district," said McAllister, who is largely paying for the race himself and argues that it shows he won't be beholden to anyone in Washington.

When Robertson endorsed his friend, he explained that McAllister has "the least political experience."

Despite that profile, McAllister isn't pushing the "blow the whole place up" mantra that some GOP primary candidates have offered in similar conservative enclaves around the country.

While he's critical of the atmosphere in Washington, he doesn't blame it exclusively on Obama. He also points a finger at House Republicans' 40-plus votes to repeal Obama's health insurance overhaul.

"I will vote to repeal it if there's a vote right now today," he said in a recent debate. "But," he told Riser, "the truth of the matter is you stand on a platform and pander for votes on something that can't be repealed."

McAllister says Republicans should show the president respect and that the best course on health care is to work on improving Obama's signature law since he was re-elected and Democrats still control the Senate.

Riser and McAllister emerged from a 14-candidate field in an October primary, called a jungle primary because Louisiana elections put all candidates, regardless of party, on the same ballot.

Both describe themselves as conservatives. Both oppose abortion, favor strong gun rights and criticize Obama's policies generally. Both criticize the levels of federal spending and debt.

"I don't think there's a lot of difference in the policy, per se, because we're both true conservatives both fiscally and socially," McAllister said.

The winner of the race will take office in time to vote on the next round of budget resolutions in January and, almost certainly, a vote soon after on whether to raise the nation's borrowing limit. Those votes were set up by an October deal to end a partial government shutdown driven by GOP opposition to the health care law.

Riser said he opposes efforts to raise the debt ceiling, saying spending should be cut instead. McAllister wasn't so absolute. He conceded he'd be willing to raise the debt ceiling if the increase was coupled with federal spending cuts and a long-term deficit reduction plan.