The race to replace Cedric Richmond in Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District is finally set, with 15 candidates qualifying, most of them from New Orleans. Baton Rouge activist Gary Chambers, who is best known for his fiery criticism of local elected officials, is mounting his own congressional bid.
Chambers doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional congressional candidate. He’s never held elected office and he’s running against two well-established Democratic state senators — Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans.
But don’t discount the Baton Rouge-area activist, even if the geography of this gerrymandered district favors politicians from the Big Easy.
You see, Chambers knows how to go viral. A clip of his confrontation with an East Baton Rouge Parish School Board Member Connie Bernard over the renaming of Lee Magnet High School racked up millions of views and brought on heaps of national attention.
He played that clip in his campaign kickoff video. For Chambers, the viral clip embodies everything that he stands for as a candidate to congress: an alternative to the status quo.
“We can’t be satisfied with being dead-last and we can’t elect career politicians if we want change to happen,” Chambers said. “If you vote the way you’ve always voted, you get what you always got, and we’ll end up where we’ve always been — at the bottom of the map.”
Chambers has spent years in Baton Rouge, working to force change from outside the political system. It’s a stark contrast with the careers of the frontrunners in the race, Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson.
Carter has the endorsement of Rep. Cedric Richmond who remains wildly popular in the district. Peterson, who until recently chaired the state Democratic Party, has the backing of Emily’s List and Stacey Abrams — the architect of Georgia’s shift to the left is a longtime friend of Peterson’s.
By comparison, Chambers’ highest-profile endorsement is from self-help guru and fringe presidential candidate Marianne Williamson.
And Chambers faces another formidable opponent: the geographic boundaries of the district.
Jeremy Alford of trade publication LaPolitics.com notes that only 11 percent of the 2nd District’s voters reside in East Baton Rouge Parish.
“Just the way this district is drawn, it is most certainly anchored by New Orleans and it favors a New Orleans-based candidate,” Alford said. “It doesn’t pick up enough of Baton Rouge to make this competitive for someone from the region.”
Back in 2016, Cedric Richmond faced sitting Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden. Richmond won the race in a landslide and even pulled 75 percent of the vote in East Baton Rouge Parish.
John Couvillon of JMC Analytics and Polling says even the timing of the March 20 general election plays to Carter and Peterson’s advantage.
“The types of voters who are likely to show up in a low-turnout election are typically much more the political insiders and the chronic voters,” Couvillon said. “I see that as benefiting one of the more predictable candidates who has an established base of support.”
Chambers is courting a different kind of voter.
He has aligned himself with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and recently retweeted a meme of himself photoshopped next to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Bernie Sanders in his inauguration best.
But the young, progressive voters that support AOC and Sanders haven’t ever been meaningfully harnessed in Louisiana politics. And those who do turn out this spring could very well latch onto the policy proposals of one of the frontrunners.
So what’s the path forward for Chambers? Alford says the upstart needs what every modern candidate for congress needs to win — money.
“It is a huge district,” Chambers said. “You have to buy into the New Orleans media market, but also the Baton Rouge media market, to run successfully. That is not cheap.”
For his part, Chambers touted early fundraising numbers this week that show he’s raised more than a quarter-million dollars so far, mostly from small-dollar donations. Not bad for an upstart congressional candidate — though another viral moment might push that number higher.