LAFAYETTE.– Even in the year of the political outsider, the successful candidacy of U.S. Rep.-elect Clay Higgins, R-3rd District, was unlikely.
An outsider? Born and reared outside the district — his family raised horses in St. Tammany — he lives outside the 3rd District now, near Port Barre. He spent years in Texas, prospered in business but struggled with personal demons. He’ll admit it all, straight up. Weeks before deciding to seek the congressional seat that incumbent Charles Boustany would vacate, Higgins left his sheriff’s office job under duress.
Even his chief political adviser wasn’t sure Higgins could win this race. The plain-spoken Higgins might run a heckuva campaign, Chris Comeaux decided, but he would struggle getting past political veteran Scott Angelle, who had ample name recognition and was on his way to raising more than a million bucks in campaign funds. Best case scenario, Comeaux thought, was Higgins running a great campaign and losing by a few points in the runoff.
But Higgins had advantages not everyone readily appreciated. He had a strong knowledge of and appreciation for constitutional principles. His communication skills towered over those of other, seemingly more polished candidates. He was “comfortable in his own skin,” Comeaux said. That mattered. It should matter, too, when he takes office Jan. 3.
“If ever there was a Congress where Clay Higgins might play a role, this might be the one,” said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “He’s straight talking. He provides ‘must-see’ TV.”
Who was this social media star?
Even Higgins didn’t know for sure he’d be a candidate for Congress until May. Comeaux said he recruited Higgins as a candidate in March after his St. Landry resignation. They met at Galatoire’s in Baton Rouge.
“I wanted to tell him the Republican Party would have his back if he ran,” Comeaux said, although he was unsure if Higgins was a Republican. “We presumed he was a conservative. He may have run for sheriff. We wanted to stress that that was not his limit. He could do something bigger.”
But who was this guy? Comeaux wanted to know. Higgins’ Crime Stoppers videos have been seen by more than 100 million people, here and abroad. One had been featured on the Tonight Show in 2015, with the audience applauding and Jimmy Fallon declaring “that guy” ought to run for president. He’d routinely made national news.
In law enforcement, Higgins found purpose
On the night shift, he found new purpose, he said. He would routinely answer calls about violence, cruelty, robbery, assault. He’d trail suspects and arrest them, but sometimes, he said, he’d try to talk them down a new, better path. He recalled trailing suspects to their trailers in the dead of night, pounding on the door and telling them the facts: They were going to jail. Recalling his own, personal demons, he might pitch the prospects of personal redemption to the suspects. There was a better way, he’d say, than cruelty and violence. Sometimes, to his own amazement, they’d listen.
That’s the message Higgins took to Crime Stoppers after Sheriff Bobby Guidroz assigned him to that duty in 2014. He’d never seen a Crime Stopper video before he took the job, he said. He didn’t even have cable television.
He used standard Crime Stopper scripts for a few weeks, then tossed them and developed his own approach. He’d call out suspects by name, talk about how cruel their crimes were, about their impacts on common, decent people who were victims, about their adverse impacts on society. Sometimes, he’d suggest that suspects on the lam could find redemption by turning themselves in and turning their lives around. Sometimes, they did.
At that first lunch in Baton Rouge, Comeaux said he and Higgins discussed running in 2016 in all three congressional districts that carve up St. Landry. They talked about the Senate seat David Vitter was vacating, too. Higgins liked Mike Johnson, who would challenge for Congress in Shreveport. He liked Ralph Abraham, too, the 5th District House incumbent.
District 3, part of what had been an Acadiana district that used to include St. Landry, looked most promising. That’s where Higgins’ highly visible Crime Stoppers segments had run on KATC television. He had a rapport with voters there, he said.
Higgins was ‘real deal,’ adviser said
Comeaux learned something else from that first meeting with Higgins.
“He was the real deal. He has a presence about him. I didn’t know where he was ideologically. Lots of folks think they are conservatives; not all of them can go real deep into that stuff and understand it,” Comeaux said.
Higgins was one. He could talk about free market principles. He knew the Constitution. He didn’t like that Angelle was what he called a “professional politician,” hopping from office to office. But Higgins wasn’t ready to commit. He told Comeaux he and his wife, Becca, needed to talk and pray. Comeaux said Higgins was serious about that, too. A campaign held appeal for him.
Higgins tested the waters by releasing a video on social media on May 3, “America United.” He opened the 5-minute, 45-second video — a sermon, it seemed — with the words, “I’m a regular American.”
“I’ve been failed. I’ve been fallen. I’ve struggled, overcame and failed again,” he told his viewers, explaining who he was and what type of public servant he would be without saying which office he’d seek. Response to the video went viral; millions saw it. Feedback was enthusiastic.
“That was the final test for me and my wife. That provided the campaign infrastructure,” he said. He would run for Congress. He signed paperwork on May 9, announced formally May 18.
Higgins, Angelle changed race’s landscape
Higgins’ entry into the race transformed it. A dozen candidates were seeking Boustany’s seat. Angelle, who initially considered running for Senate, had been slow to enter the race. Others entered to not be left behind if Angelle eventually declined to run.
“When most of the candidates got in, neither Scott Angelle nor Clay Higgins were in,” said Grover Joseph Rees, a Lafayette Republican and former U.S. ambassador to East Timor, who had already announced his candidacy. Angelle entered late, Higgins followed. After that, Rees said, it became a different race:
“There was a view from people with more experience that once they (Angelle and Higgins) were in, there was not much the rest of us could do about it. They had name identification. They had a following. They both ran good campaigns.”
By campaign’s end, Rees said, Higgins’ media presence was so dominant it has “sucked the air out of the race” for everyone else.
Most people expected Angelle to lead the Nov. 8 voting, perhaps with 30 percent. Forty percent might have shown considerable strength, Comeaux said. Most of the candidates thought second place would take about 15 percent. Few people — count the Higgins campaign among them — believed Angelle and Higgins would simply run away from the field like they did, 29 percent for Angelle, 27 percent for Higgins. No one else cracked 10.
Comeaux said he knew then that the race was Higgins’ to lose.
Trump win might’ve boosted Higgins
Cross said several factors weighed in Higgins’ favor, and against Angelle’s. Higgins was the “most outside of the outsiders” in a year when Donald Trump, a national outsider, won the presidency. Conversely, Angelle was “a fixture” in Louisiana politics. Trump’s Nov. 8 victory made people believe Higgins, too, could win.
Others suggested Angelle’s message was muddled. He claimed that he would be an outsider fighting for Louisianians, but Higgins already held the outsider image. Angelle spent heavy money on a “Back the badge” ad campaign during the police shootings that occurred nationwide last summer, but Higgins was the famous lawman. Angelle was drawing pay of $380,000 to sit on an energy company board; such jobs only go to insiders, Cross said. That, too, undercut Angelle’s message.
Meanwhile, Higgins said he drew inspiration from his faith. He told The Daily Advertiser in late summer that God had directed him to challenge Angelle. In the campaign’s wake, he said, he and Becca decided that the door closed to him at the St. Landry Sheriff’s Office had led them to the open door in Congress.
There were setbacks. The Angelle camp pitched the fruits of their “opposition research.” Most damaging was a charge from Rothkamm-Hambrice that Higgins was a “deadbeat dad,” that he owed more than $100,000 in child support for his three children, now all in their 20s.
Court records suggest something else. Higgins paid about $40,000 in child support through 2005 based on his high salary in automobile sales. When he changed career paths, accepting an $8-an-hour law enforcement job, he sought lower payments. Rothkamm-Hambrice and Higgins began court proceedings, but never resolved their issues. A hearing on their dispute was never held; for 10 years, it lay dormant, seemingly abandoned. Until Higgins announced for Congress.
The story floated around the campaign for weeks, then months. The Daily Advertiser contacted courts and attorneys in Texas and in Louisiana; both states said the case appeared to be abandoned. Higgins said he continued to support his children in the manner his paycheck allowed: He paid their insurance, he bought them vehicles. His son lived with him in St. Landry for awhile; his two natural children celebrated his primary performance with him.
Rothkamm-Hambrice revived the court action just before the runoff campaign. Three days before the runoff vote, she posted to social media portions of a private conversation — Higgins thought it was private — she’d had with her ex-husband months before that she said were damning. Some media outlets picked up the story.
Angelle’s personal attacks bothered Higgins, who said he’d confessed to every wrong thing he’d ever done. Why make up new stories?
He himself declined advice to attack Angelle personally. That, Higgins said, would have been contrary to what gave birth to his campaign. At the last, televised debate, a viewer invited the candidates to say something nice about the other. Higgins complimented Angelle’s wife, Dianne. Angelle responded by bringing up the child-support allegation.
It didn’t matter. Higgins sensed he was ahead, but pressed his campaign right to the moment when Angelle called to congratulate him on his win.
The journey was complete. Months back, Higgins was a cop, crouched in the darkness outside trailers, exhorting criminal suspects to give themselves up. Last week, he was headed to Capitol Hill.