Sen. David Vitter (R)
Elected: 2004, term expires 2010, 1st term.
Born: May 3, 1961, New Orleans .
Education: Harvard U., A.B. 1983, Rhodes Scholar, Oxford U., B.A. 1985, Tulane Law Schl., J.D. 1988.
Family: Married (Wendy); 4 children.
Elected office: LA House of Reps., 1991-99; U.S. House of Reps., 1999-2004.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1988-99; Adjunct law prof., Tulane U. & Loyola U., 1995-98.
Louisiana’s junior senator is David Vitter, a Republican elected in 2004. He grew up in the New Orleans area, the son of a Chevron petroleum engineer. He graduated from Harvard University and Tulane University’s law school and was a Rhodes Scholar. He was a business attorney and taught law at Tulane and Loyola. In 1991, Vitter was elected to the state House from the district that had been represented by former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke. There he passed a term-limits bill through a reluctant state Legislature and was noted for his ability to irritate other politicians. Many of them held grudges because of his crusade for term limits; others were put off by his crusades for ethics in government. Vitter led the effort to recall Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards, who ultimately went to prison for racketeering. A popular sheriff sued Vitter three times after Vitter criticized his ethics.
|David Vitter (R)||943,014||(51%)||($7,206,714)|
|Chris John (D)||542,150||(20%)||($4,868,165)|
|John Kennedy (D)||275,821||(15%)||($1,919,874)|
Vitter ran for Congress and won in a May 1999 special election to replace Republican Bob Livingston, the Speaker-designate who announced in late 1998 that he would resign after confessing that he had had extramarital affairs. Many Republicans jumped into the race, and many Louisiana and national Republicans feared that Duke would run and embarrass the party by making it into the runoff. The establishment choice was David Treen, 70, who had served four terms in the House starting in 1972 and had been elected governor in 1979. Vitter argued, in effect, that Treen was too old, saying, “We need a younger congressman like me, so we can start building up the seniority we lost when Bob Livingston resigned.” The top two vote-getters in the initial balloting were Treen, with 25%, and Vitter, with 22%. The two advanced to the runoff under the system then in use. Duke, unnervingly close to making the runoff, finished third with 19%. Low turnout was probably a factor in deciding the runoff, as Vitter rallied his troops and won 51%-49%.
Vitter had one of the most conservative voting records in the House and the most conservative in the delegation. He twice won re-election in his heavily Republican, suburban New Orleans district with at least 80% of the vote.
In December 2003, Democratic Sen. John Breaux announced that he would not seek a fourth term, and two days later, Vitter jumped into the contest. Wooden in manner, a self-described loner and highly conservative, Vitter was the stylistic opposite of Breaux, a gregarious dealmaker and respected centrist from Cajun country who had been a major force for reform of entitlements and health care. But the state party and national Republicans worked hard to clear the field for Vitter, viewing him as the strongest possible candidate, thanks to his suburban political base and his habit of traveling the state to announce projects secured from his perch on the Appropriations Committee. He was also familiar in Cajun country after his well-publicized opposition to an Indian casino in southwestern Louisiana.
On the Democratic side, three serious candidates joined the race: U.S. Rep. Chris John, a native of Crowley, the town that produced not only Breaux but Edwards; two-term state Treasurer John Kennedy; and state Rep. Arthur Morrell, an African-American from New Orleans. There was little doubt that Vitter would win the state’s unique Election Day primary against a divided Democratic field; the real issue for Democrats was holding him below the 50%-plus-one threshold necessary to avoid a December runoff. Vitter ran as a strong supporter of President George W. Bush and called for making Bush’s tax cuts permanent, new job creation and medical-malpractice restrictions. He opposed abortion rights, same-sex marriage and gun-ownership restrictions. He said he best represented “mainstream Louisiana values” and painted John as an out-of-touch Washington liberal who was close to John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. John, the Democratic front-runner who had Breaux’s endorsement, responded by referring to Vitter as a Republican Party puppet and strove to distance himself from Kerry’s presidential campaign—a wise move in a state that Bush wound up carrying with 57% that November.
Sugar was an important issue. Louisiana is the prime cane-sugar-producing state, and producers worry about being undercut by cheap imports. Vitter broke with the Bush administration over the Central American Free Trade Agreement, opposing it because it did not exempt sugar imports from the deal. Vitter ran some of the best and most creative television ads of the election cycle, making light of his image as a stiff politician with humorous commercials featuring his daughter’s home movies. Meanwhile, John failed to gain momentum and was caught in the crossfire between Vitter on the right and Kennedy and Morrell on the left. With Vitter leading in the polls going into November, the Democratic candidates began scrambling to keep him below the 50% threshold. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee assisted by spending more than $1.5 million in ads criticizing Vitter’s positions on prescription-drug reimportation and Social Security. It wasn’t enough. Vitter won the race outright with 51%, becoming the first Republican in 121 years to represent Louisiana in the Senate. John was the leading Democratic vote-getter, with 29% to 15% for Kennedy and 3% for Morrell. Bush’s strong performance helped Vitter, but he ran well on his own, winning Mississippi River parishes that Bush lost, carrying nearly all of Louisiana north of Baton Rouge, and posting large margins in the New Orleans suburbs. In populous St. Tammany Parish, which he had represented in Congress, Vitter won by more than 5-to-1. His 60,000-vote margin there was more than enough to erase John’s 25,000-vote advantage in New Orleans.
In the Senate, Vitter has compiled a relatively conservative voting record with maverick touches. In January 2007, during the Senate’s debate of the lobbying reform bill, he won passage of his amendments to increase criminal sanctions for willful violations. He sought to prohibit lobbying by spouses of senators. He also advocated for a lost cause in the Senate: a constitutional amendment to limit members of the House and Senate to 12 years of service. But Vitter continued to be a thorn in the side of lawmakers who prefer business as usual. In March 2009, he sponsored an amendment to require a vote on any annual congressional pay raise before it could take effect. Although the amendment was defeated, the move pressured Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to put the pay raise to a stand-alone vote. It passed. After Democrat Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008, Vitter was not inspired to try to make friends across the aisle. He cast one of the two votes against confirming New York Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, although her qualifications for the job were not an issue.
He continued to push for drug reimportation, which allows consumers to buy U.S.-made drugs from other countries, where they are often cheaper. In 2006, the Senate passed his amendment to stop customs agents from seizing small amounts of Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs that Americans had bought in Canada for their personal use.
In September 2007, his amendment to bar funding of organizations advocating international gun-control policies passed 81-10. But the following month, the Senate rejected 52-41 his amendment to deny family-planning funds to organizations that perform abortions. He frequently attacked the United Nations, particularly when its Human Rights Council condemned the tearing down of New Orleans public-housing projects. In July 2008, the Senate passed his amendment giving inspectors general more access to documents on the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Vitter is particularly interested in law-and-order issues. In April 2008, he led a bipartisan group of senators supporting $50 million for the U.S. Marshals Service to track down child predators in April 2008. He also sponsored a bill to require all states to collect DNA samples from convicted felons.
At a Senate hearing two months before Hurricane Katrina, Vitter predicted that someday a huge storm would smash the city and leave it under water: “It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.” After the catastrophe, he criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for failing to provide flood protection for the city. And he worked with Louisiana’s Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, in pressing for federal recovery funds, though the two famously don’t get along personally. They presented a Louisiana commission’s proposal for $250 billion in funding for repairs and reconstruction, which was widely regarded as unrealistic. On occasion, he attacked Landrieu for filibustering too much and told local reporters that he was well aware of the widespread view among Republicans in Congress that Louisiana would waste federal reconstruction funds. In September 2007, he criticized Reid for delaying the scheduling of a vote on a water-resources bill that authorized nearly $2 billion for Louisiana coastal-restoration projects and $886 million for a 72-mile system of levees and floodwalls for low-lying Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. The next month, Vitter got 22 Republican senators to sign a letter urging Bush to abandon his threat to veto the bill. In February 2008, he got Landrieu to drop from her housing bill a requirement that all public-housing units be replaced and to add in its stead a provision for tenant vouchers that could be used for housing anywhere.
All in all, in the 110th Congress (2007-08), Vitter was productive for someone whose image and reputation had been dealt a major blow in July 2007, when it was revealed that between 1999 and 2001 his phone number had appeared on the call list of “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey. A week later he appeared with his wife, Wendy, at his side and issued a public apology, saying he had committed “a very serious sin.” In April 2008, Palfrey’s defense attorney said he would ask the senator to testify, but in a stroke of luck for Vitter, the defense rested without calling witnesses. That same year, the Senate Ethics Committee debated whether to punish Vitter, but ruled that the conduct in question had occurred before he entered the Senate and took a pass. Vitter then tried to use his campaign funds to pay $160,000 in legal fees in the case, but the Federal Election Commission would not permit him to do so. In another round of negative publicity for Vitter, in March 2009, the Transportation Security Administration looked into an incident in which Vitter allegedly had opened a security gate to try to board a flight at Dulles Airport after the flight had been boarded and the doors locked; the attempt set off alarms. Vitter later claimed he had mistakenly gone through the wrong door at the gate. The TSA ruled that he had not posed a security threat.
Still, Louisianans continued to support Vitter; he maintained high job approval in 2008 and early 2009. He stayed in touch with constituents by attending more than 120 town-hall meetings across the state. There was talk that he would be opposed in the 2010 primary, but prominent possible challengers were taking a pass in early 2009. Vitter could face a Democratic challenge, however. The last time an incumbent Louisiana senator was defeated was in 1932.