Vitter Loses Louisiana Governor’s Race. And He’s Leaving the Senate, Too.

Democrats will have their first governor in the Deep South since 2008.

Louisiana Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Bel Edwards greets supporters as he watches election returns in a hotel suite at his Election Night watch party in New Orleans on Saturday.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
Nov. 21, 2015, 10:10 p.m.

Louisi­ana voters elec­ted a Demo­crat as the state’s next gov­ernor, with John Bel Ed­wards de­feat­ing Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter in an elec­tion defined by nasty per­son­al at­tacks and the sen­at­or’s past scan­dal. Ed­wards led Vit­ter, 55 to 45 per­cent, with 97 per­cent of pre­cincts re­port­ing.  After the de­feat, Vit­ter an­nounced he will be re­tir­ing from the Sen­ate as well.

Des­pite the state’s con­ser­vat­ive tilt, Vit­ter nev­er led Ed­wards, a pro-life, pro-gun state rep­res­ent­at­ive, in a single pub­lic poll. Vit­ter’s vul­ner­ab­il­ity stemmed from polit­ic­al op­pon­ents dig­ging up his 2007 pros­ti­tu­tion scan­dal that be­came a ma­jor theme for the Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor-elect’s cam­paign. In the race’s fi­nal week, Vit­ter at­temp­ted to use the is­sue of Syr­i­an refugees as a last-ditch at­tack against Ed­wards, but it didn’t work.

Vit­ter’s im­age was battered by at­tack ads from out­side groups that used Vit­ter’s scan­dal to ques­tion his judg­ment, trust­wor­thi­ness, and eth­ic­al mores. One Ed­wards ad was used demon­strate that his “ex­tra­cur­ricular activ­it­ies,” as Ed­wards called them, in­terfered with his work. The one TV ad that Ed­wards ran on the top­ic in the run­off ac­cused Vit­ter of skip­ping votes in Con­gress to take calls from an es­cort ser­vice—a charge that Vit­ter nev­er denied.  

“The Louisi­ana res­ults today prove that strong Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al can­did­ates can win races any­where in the coun­try—in red, purple, or blue states,” said DGA chair­man Steve Bul­lock, the gov­ernor of Montana. “When pun­dits said the race was ‘im­possible’ and a ‘coron­a­tion,’ John Bel kept fight­ing every day. We con­grat­u­late John Bel Ed­wards on his up­set vic­tory to­night.”

Vit­ter’s land­slide de­feat is a stun­ner for Re­pub­lic­ans, who ex­pec­ted the state’s Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate to over­come any per­son­al weak­nesses that the sen­at­or brought in­to the race. Even many Louisi­ana Demo­crats ini­tially be­lieved Vit­ter was un­beat­able as a sit­ting sen­at­or run­ning in one of the most con­ser­vat­ive states in the coun­try. However, Ed­wards and a close team of sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing former Demo­crat­ic Gov. Kath­leen Blanco, saw an early path for Ed­wards that in­volved play­ing up his mil­it­ary back­ground as a West Point gradu­ate and former Army Ranger and us­ing that to draw a con­trast with Vit­ter from an eth­ic­al stand­point. 

Vit­ter spent the fi­nal week of the race fo­cus­ing on is­sues de­signed to fire up the most con­ser­vat­ive voters—par­tic­u­larly the re­newed threat of ter­ror­ism after the IS­IS-sponsored at­tacks in Par­is last Fri­day. Vit­ter re­lent­lessly ac­cused Ed­wards of sup­port­ing the re­lo­ca­tion of Syr­i­an refugees flee­ing civil war in­to Louisi­ana, and used the is­sue to tie Ed­wards to Pres­id­ent Obama—even though Ed­wards pub­licly op­posed such a meas­ure. Vit­ter’s ag­gress­ive at­tempts to fo­cus at­ten­tion on this in the fi­nal week wasn’t enough to over­come his broad­er char­ac­ter prob­lems. 

In his con­ces­sion speech, Vit­ter an­nounced he wouldn’t be seek­ing a third term for the Sen­ate—a con­clu­sion that many of his GOP col­leagues pres­sured him to reach, as­sum­ing he lost the gov­ernor’s race. Vit­ter pre­vi­ously an­nounced that he would lim­it him­self to two Sen­ate terms. Sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans made moves this year to set them­selves up as po­ten­tial Sen­ate can­did­ates as­sum­ing Vit­ter would win the gov­ernor­ship—in­clud­ing state Treas­urer John Kennedy, Reps. Charles Bous­tany and John Flem­ing, and 2014 U.S. Sen­ate can­did­ate Rob Maness. Those close to Scott An­gelle say the pub­lic ser­vice com­mis­sion­er is po­ten­tially in­ter­ested, as well.

There hasn’t been a Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor in the deep South since 2008, when Blanco left of­fice after los­ing reelec­tion. Neigh­bor­ing Arkan­sas had a Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor un­til 2014, when term-lim­ited Gov. Mike Beebe re­tired and Demo­crats failed to hold the seat. 

Ed­wards’s win is also wel­come news na­tion­ally for Demo­crats, who have struggled to win gov­ernor­ships in re­cent years at a rate not seen since the early 1900s. Even Hil­lary Clin­ton chimed in with a con­grat­u­lat­ory note to Ed­wards. “John Bel’s ex­per­i­ence as a sol­dier, vet­er­an, small-busi­ness own­er, and state le­gis­lat­or will serve Louisi­anans well, and his plat­form —in­clud­ing get­ting run­away high­er-edu­ca­tion costs un­der con­trol and ex­pand­ing Medi­caid for thou­sands of fam­il­ies—is the right one for Louisi­ana’s fu­ture,” Clin­ton said.

Among the na­tion’s 50 gov­ernors, there are now 18 Demo­crats, 31 Re­pub­lic­ans, and one in­de­pend­ent.

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