Widow wins congressional seat husband couldn’t fill after dying of COVID-19

Published 10:26 pm Saturday, March 20, 2021

Julia Letlow wins northeast Louisiana-based US House seat

Republican Julia Letlow easily won a Saturday special election for the northeast Louisiana-based U.S. House seat that her husband, Luke, couldn’t fill because of his death from complications related to COVID-19.

With the victory, Julia Letlow becomes the third woman ever elected to the U.S. House from Louisiana, the first Republican woman elected to Congress from the state and the only woman among its current congressional delegation.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

She trounced 11 other contenders to capture the 5th District seat in the primary.

“This is an incredible moment, and it is truly hard to put into words. 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,” Julia Letlow said in a statement.

Farther south, the race to fill a second vacant U.S. House seat for Louisiana was headed to an April 24 runoff. State Sen. Troy Carter, a New Orleans Democrat, secured his spot in that runoff, but it was too early to determine who he’d face in the head-to-head matchup. Fifteen candidates were vying for the New Orleans-based 2nd District seat that’s open because Democrat Cedric Richmond took a job as a special adviser to President Joe Biden.

In Louisiana, all candidates regardless of party compete against each other in the primary. If no candidate tops 50% of the vote, a runoff election is held between the top two vote-getters.

Julia Letlow ran in her deep red district with the backing of former President Donald Trump, the endorsement of the state GOP and more money raised than all her competitors combined. It was the first bid for elected office by the higher education administrator who lives in the small town of Start in Richland Parish.

She ran on issues similar to those that her husband discussed during his campaign. She talked of supporting agriculture in the largely rural district, expanding broadband internet access and supporting conservative values.

Gov. John Bel Edwards offered congratulations to Julia Letlow on what he said must be a proud but bittersweet day.

“She has continued to exemplify strength, determination and tenacity in the wake of a terrible tragedy. I know that these same characteristics that got her through the last few months will make her an excellent advocate for Louisiana in Washington, D.C.,” the Democratic governor said in a statement.

Luke Letlow died Dec. 29, only days before he was scheduled to be sworn into office. His wife announced her candidacy in January, a move that sidelined other high-profile Republicans who had expressed interest in the seat.

Julia Letlow raised more than $680,000 for the race, according to data filed with the Federal Election Commission. Her closest fundraising competitor, Democrat Sandra “Candy” Christophe, brought in $75,000. Christophe is a social worker from Alexandria who also ran unsuccessfully against Luke Letlow.

The 5th District covers all or part of 24 parishes, including the cities of Alexandria and Monroe.

In the 2nd District, several high-profile candidates were seeking the seat in a majority minority district that extends along the Mississippi River into Baton Rouge.

In addition to Carter, other Democrats included New Orleans state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson and Gary Chambers Jr., a Baton Rouge community activist and local publisher who gained prominence during protests of the 2016 shooting death of Alton Sterling by local police.

The Republican Party-backed candidate is Claston Bernard, a Jamaican-born decathlete who competed in the Olympics, runs a home inspection business and lives in the Baton Rouge suburbs.

The major Democratic contenders have had few differences on policy, backing progressive causes such as increasing the federal minimum wage, expanding access to federally financed health care and supporting “environmental justice” for poor communities facing greater health risks from pollution.

With Carter and Peterson atop the polls and the highest fundraisers, they largely battled each other. Carter accused Peterson of crafting education legislation to benefit her husband’s career, an allegation the Peterson campaign called offensive and deceptive. They traded criticism about missed votes in the Legislature. Each has previously run for the congressional seat. Carter had Richmond’s backing in the race.

With less money for advertising, Chambers has focused more heavily on social media outreach. He’s criticized Carter and Peterson as career politicians who have done nothing to change the state’s trajectory.

Bernard highlighted his Christian faith, said the GOP should do more to reach out to Black voters who are Christians and criticized government programs as unable to lift people out of poverty. But he faces a high hurdle to victory in a district that traditionally chooses Democrats.