Congressman-elect Luke Letlow dies of COVID-19, seat to remain vacant

Luke Letlow
Congressman-elect Luke Letlow, R-La., stands outside Start Elementary School in Start, Louisiana, with his wife Julia and two children after casting his ballot for himself in the runoff election for Louisiana's 5th congressional district, Dec. 5, 2020. |

A newly elected member of Congress has died after contracting the coronavirus just days before he was set to be sworn into office.

Congressman-elect Luke Letlow, R-La., died Tuesday, 11 days after announcing that he tested positive for coronavirus. According to the most recent update from Letlow’s Twitter account, posted on Dec. 23, the Congressman-elect had been “transferred from St. Francis Medical Center in Monroe, LA to Ochsner LSU Health Shreveport Academic Medical Center in Shreveport, LA.”

Dr. G.E. Ghali of LSU Health Shreveport attributed Letlow’s death to “a cardiac event this evening that was refractory to all resuscitation efforts.” Ghali contended that his death was “all COVID related.”

Letlow, 41, was elected to represent Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District in a Dec. 5 runoff election, where he faced fellow Republican Lance Harris. Letlow and Harris finished first and second, respectively, in the Nov. 3 general election, where all candidates ran together on the same ticket regardless of partisan affiliation. Louisiana law requires a runoff election to take place if no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the “jungle primary” that takes place concurrently with the general election.

Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have expressed condolences to Letlow’s family following his passing. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise issued a statement on behalf of the entire Louisiana congressional delegation, of which he is a part: “We are devastated to hear of Luke Letlow’s passing. Luke had such a positive spirit, and a tremendously bright future ahead of him.”

“He was looking forward to serving the people of Louisiana in Congress, and we were excited to welcome him to our delegation where he was ready to make an even greater impact on our state and our Nation. More than anything, Luke was a loving husband, father, brother, and son, and his family – like so many others who have been affected by this evil disease – needs our prayers. We all join in sending our strongest support to Luke’s wife Julia and their young family, and are keeping them in our prayers,” they added.

“The United States House of Representatives sadly mourns the passing of Congressman-elect Luke Letlow,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a statement. “As the House grieves Congressman-elect Letlow’s passing, our sorrow is compounded by the grief of so many other families who have also suffered lives cut short by this terrible virus. May it be a comfort to Luke’s wife Julia and their children Jeremiah and Jacqueline that so many mourn their loss and are praying for them at this sad time.”

Describing himself as a “9th generation Louisianan from Richland Parish, Louisiana,” Letlow served as chief of staff to Rep. Ralph Abraham during his entire tenure in Congress. Abraham elected not to run for reelection in 2020 following an unsuccessful effort to become Louisiana governor and Letlow successfully won the race to replace his boss.

While Letlow is the first elected official at the national level to die from COVID-19, politicians at the state level have also succumbed to the virus. Three weeks ago, the newly elected speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Republican Dick Hinch, was found dead in his home. An autopsy revealed coronavirus as his cause of death.

Letlow’s seat in the House of Representatives will remain vacant until a special election can take place. Republicans will likely hold onto the seat following a special election because President Donald Trump won Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District with 63.5% of the vote in 2016, according to Daily Kos Elections.

When the 117th Congress is sworn in next week, two seats will be vacant: Letlow’s seat and the seat for New York’s 22nd Congressional District, where the outcome of the 2020 election remains in dispute. The number of vacancies is expected to grow as three members of the House of Representatives have been tapped for roles in a Joe Biden administration.

Democrats will have a slim majority in the House of Representatives in the 117th Congress but any additional vacancies will cause their majority to shrink even further until special elections can take place. In the 2020 elections, Democrats won 222 House seats while Republicans won 212. Letlow’s death will reduce the GOP’s number of seats to 211 until a special election is held.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., has announced that he will resign to become a senior adviser to President-elect Joe Biden while Reps. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, and Deb Haaland, D-N.M., have been selected for cabinet positions in a Biden administration, subject to Senate confirmation.

Although Richmond, Fudge and Haaland represent districts that voted for Biden by a wide margin in the 2020 presidential election, it is not unprecedented for the party out of power to win special elections in seats that favor the other party in presidential elections.

Democrats won two special elections in seats previously held by Republicans during the Trump administration. Democrats won a special Senate election in the overwhelmingly Republican state of Alabama in 2017 and emerged victorious in a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, a Republican stronghold, in 2018.

With a week remaining before the new Congress is sworn in, the balance of power on Capitol Hill remains undecided but the results are reflective of the partisan divide in the country.

Democrats will narrowly retain control of the House of Representatives while control of the Senate will come down to two Senate runoff elections taking place in Georgia on Tuesday. Should Republicans win one or both races, they will maintain control of the Senate while Democrats will need to win both races to take control of the upper chamber.

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