The death of Rep.-elect Luke Letlow means there will be two open House seats when the new Congress convenes on Sunday, with Democrats already trying to navigate how to pass legislation with their narrowest majority in decades.
Letlow, a Louisiana Republican, died Tuesday after contracting COVID-19 earlier this month. Letlow was 41 and is survived by his wife, Julia Barnhill Letlow, and two children.
Letlow won a Dec. 5 runoff in Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, a Republican stronghold encompassing rural northeastern Louisiana, central Louisiana, and some parishes in southwestern Louisiana. Republican Rep. Ralph Abraham is retiring from the seat after six years in office. Letlow was a chief of staff to Abraham and also worked for former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
A special election will be held for the seat Letlow was set to assume. That makes it the second House district that won’t have representation when the 117th Congress convenes on Sunday.
New York’s 22nd Congressional District, a sprawling swath of land running from the Pennsylvania state line to Lake Ontario, is open because the November race is still uncalled. Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi in 2020 faced a stiff challenge from the Republican he ousted in 2018, former Rep. Claudia Tenney, who held the House seat from 2017 to 2019. Out of more than 311,000 votes cast in the district, the pair have been separated by less than a few dozen, with counting still going on.
Tenney said Wednesday she is up by 27 votes, with her edge coming from Oneida County’s review of over 1,700 affidavit (provisional) ballots. But the race has not been certified for either candidate, and New York Supreme Court Judge Scott DelConte, who is overseeing the recount process in Oneida County, has said the contest won’t be decided until after the 117th Congress convenes.
And the Tenney-Brindisi legal fight isn’t the only election contest the House is dealing with. In Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a state senator, has been certified as the winner over Democratic rival Rita Hart by six votes out of more than 394,000 cast. Hart, a former state senator, is appealing the case directly to the House, which has the ultimate say over who it seats.
Assuming Miller-Meeks is seated, when the House opens up for business on Sunday at 12 p.m., there will be 222 Democrats, 211 Republicans, and the two district vacancies. It will be the narrowest House majority since Republicans were in control during the 2001-02 session and the lowest number of Democratic seats when they held the majority since World War II.
That comes as Democratic President-elect Joe Biden aims to push his legislative agenda through Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team won’t have much margin for error on votes. The Senate majority, meanwhile, remains undecided ahead of a pair of runoffs for both the state’s seats on Jan. 5.
Pelosi’s majority is about to shrink even further, temporarily. Biden has tapped Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana for a top administration post. Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico is set to be Biden’s nominee for interior secretary. And Biden has chosen Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio as housing secretary.
Their seats, while each strongly Democratic, will take months to replace through special elections, though the effect will be offset at least somewhat with the vacancy in the seat Letlow was about to assume.
Letlow is the first person elected to this House who didn’t assume their seat since 1982. That year, former astronaut Jack Swigert, a Colorado Republican, won a House seat in early November but died of cancer on Dec. 27.