Julia Letlow has never run for political office, but she intimately knows what it’s like to be on a successful Congressional campaign. She’s now a frontrunner in the race to fill the seat that her husband, Luke Letlow, never got to occupy after his successful election last fall.
Luke died of complications from COVID-19 just five days before he was to be sworn into office at the U.S. Capitol for Lousiana’s 5th District.
“You become a team, and you start to share the same dreams and vision and mission in life—our shared vision was to help make this place that we call home better for our children and for future generations,” Julia Letlow, 41, told Newsweek of her husband.
Like her late husband, Julia Letlow grew up in the conservative district and has lived there most of her life. An executive at the University of Louisiana Monroe, Letlow often cites the couple’s two small children as an inspiration behind her decision to run for office so soon after losing her husband.
“I can’t think of any better example to set for my children than to show them when you face trials and tribulations in your life—because you will, we all will—it is important to keep going and to keep moving forward,” she said. “And I know that’s what Luke would want.”
Louisiana’s 5th District—a Republican stronghold that covers the northeastern corner of the state—is largely rural and dominated by farmland. It is also one of the poorest districts in the country, according to an analysis conducted by the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit that advocates for food security. Census figures show that nearly a quarter of the district’s residents fall below the federal poverty level.
Soft-spoken and with a background in communications, Letlow isn’t the bombastic breed of Republicans who were elected to the House last fall—quickly making names for themselves since taking office and in the wake of a massive riot of Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol that was meant to disrupt the certification of the election of President Joe Biden.
“I think that most Americans, especially those in the 5th District, are looking for a representative who will go up and be a light, someone who will just get the job done and stay out of the drama,” she told Newsweek. “I’d plan to work with anyone across the aisle or that will help me get results back to the 5th District.”
Luke Letlow, 41, had spent two decades working behind-the-scenes for Louisiana Republicans before deciding to run for Congress to replace his retiring boss, then-Representative Ralph Abraham.
Julia Letlow now wants to carry on his message. Both Letlow campaigns have highlighted their anti-abortion, pro-gun stances. Julia said she also would also like to promote education as a priority issue in Congress.
“That’s where I come in with a little bit more of a twist to what Luke ran on,” she said. “I truly have always believed that education is the answer and can be a catalyst to help elevate a region out of poverty.”
She was at her husband’s side as he traveled throughout the district’s 24 parishes last fall and the pair had begun to have serious discussions about her possibly running for some level of political office in the future.
“I’ve never had more peace about a decision,” she said of ultimately campaigning to be her husband’s replacement.
She joins a rare but demonstrated tradition of women seeking their husbands’ seats in Congress after unexpected deaths. Lindy Boggs became the first woman to represent Louisiana in Congress after the death of her husband, Hale Boggs, who was House majority leader when the airplane he was traveling in disappeared and presumably crashed in Alaska in 1972. Jean Carnahan became the first woman to represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate after she was appointed to fill the seat of her late husband, Mel Carnahan, who was posthumously elected after a 2000 plane crash.
“I very intimately see why those women — they stood up and said, ‘I want to carry the torch forward,'” Letlow said. “It is truly a shared dream that you create when you’re in a partnership with someone—you’re working side by side with that person.”
In her first campaign ad, Letlow talks about her husband’s death as photos from their wedding and other milestones are shown. “Marriage is the greatest gift. You truly become a team,” she says in a voiceover.
She’s won the endorsement of top House Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House GOP Whip Steve Scalise, lofting her to an early frontrunner status among the dozen candidates set to appear on the ballot.
“Julia shares the same commitment to public service and I can’t think of anyone better to carry on Luke’s legacy in representing Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District,” Scalise wrote on Twitter.
Under Louisiana’s “jungle primary” system, all candidates of all parties will appear on the ballot together on March 20. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two will take place on April 24. If that is needed, Louisiana’s 5th District will have held four elections in five months.
Luke Letlow took just over 33 percent of the vote in his first round last fall, then trounced Republican State Representative Lance Harris 62 percent to 38 percent in the runoff in December.
Another of Louisiana’s six seats in the U.S. House is also unoccupied and will be decided this spring, after the resignation of former Representative Cedric Richmond who left to become a top adviser in President Joe Biden’s administration.