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Julia Letlow wins special election in Louisiana to replace her late husband

Julia Letlow, widow of U.S. Rep.-elect Luke Letlow (R-La.), speaks to reporters at the Louisiana State Archives in Baton Rouge on Jan. 21. Julia Letlow won the 5th District House seat that her husband won in December; he died of covid complications before being sworn in. (Brett Duke/AP)

Republican candidate Julia Letlow won a special election to replace her late husband in Congress on Saturday, eliminating the vacancy left after Luke Letlow’s covid-19-related death last year.

Letlow will represent the 5th Congressional District as soon as the House returns from its work period next month. In the state’s 2nd Congressional District, meantime, Democratic state senators Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson were headed to an April 24 runoff, with liberal activist Gary Chambers falling just short.

“What was born out of the terrible tragedy of losing my husband, Luke, has become my mission in his honor,” Letlow said in a statement declaring victory Saturday night.

In the 5th District, Letlow had been heavily favored to win and was battling to secure 50 percent of the vote outright, negating the need for a runoff. Her husband won the seat in a December runoff but died of covid-19 complications before his swearing-in.

She announced her bid two weeks after his death and has raised nearly $700,000 — 10 times more than Democrat Sandra “Candy” Christophe, her closest financial rival.

Most ambitious local Republicans passed on the race, and the party establishment — from former president Donald Trump to House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) — got behind Letlow, who has run as a results-focused rural conservative.

“Some people are more focused on agriculture; some people want infrastructure,” Letlow, who hasn’t previously sought elected office, told a local news station earlier this month. “We just want opportunity for our children.”

Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, alluded to Luke Letlow’s death in late December as he congratulated his widow.

“Congratulations to Julia Letlow on her victory,” he said in a statement. “Julia has overcome tremendous adversity and is an inspiration to all of us. Julia will be a powerful, conservative voice for the people of Louisiana and I look forward to working with her in Congress.”

The special election in the 2nd District, which stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, became necessary after Cedric L. Richmond (D) resigned from the seat to become an adviser to President Biden. Richmond endorsed Carter, who has pitched himself to voters as a pragmatic legislator whose Washington clout could deliver for the majority-Black district.

“His endorsement obviously means a great deal,” Carter, 57, said in an interview as he campaigned near Baton Rouge last week. “The relationship we have is a huge benefit to Louisiana.”

Richmond’s endorsement did not clear the field, however, and Carter has been locked in a battle with Carter Peterson and 13 other candidates, most of them Democrats. Carter Peterson, 51, ran the state Democratic Party for years, and she’s campaigned as a more reliably liberal advocate than Carter, emphasizing her support for a Green New Deal — a break from Richmond, who had strong ties to the oil and gas industries.

“This district needs a progressive Democrat that’s not going to flip-flop on issues like the Green New Deal,” Carter Peterson said in an interview near her New Orleans home, touting her support from groups like the Sierra Club. “People who are concerned with environmental injustice and racism need somebody that they can trust, who’s going to fight with them on the front lines.”

Carter and Carter Peterson, who are not related, have each raised around $500,000, allowing them to dominate the airwaves. Polling had found them well ahead of rivals, including Chambers and former Louisiana State University track star Claston Bernard. Chambers and Bernard are running as political outsiders, offering a change from the longtime leadership in a district with pockets of deep poverty and pollution.

But the two state senators have dominated the race, with Carter running his first negative ad this week, targeting Carter Peterson’s education record. Chambers, who gained viral fame after confronting a school board over whether Robert E. Lee’s name should remain on a school, raised more than $300,000; Bernard, the best-known Republican in the race, raised a bit more than $100,000. Both are angling for a place in the runoff, aware of their underdog status.

“Everyone wants access to the White House and the resources that come with that,” Chambers told The Washington Post this week. “No one wants to get overly involved against Cedric.”

Going into Saturday, there were five vacancies in the 435-member House — two in formerly Republican-held seats and three in seats once held by Democrats in a chamber only narrowly controlled by the Democratic Party.

New Mexico will elect a replacement for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on June 1, while northeastern Ohio voters will nominate candidates to replace newly confirmed Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge on Aug. 3, with a special election to follow in November. On May 1, voters in northern Texas will pick a replacement for the late Rep. Ron Wright, a Republican whose widow is seeking his old seat.

Tyler Pager contributed to this report.