Meet the Bicoastal, Bipartisan Team That Signed On to Defeat David Vitter

A California Republican paired up with two Democratic pollsters to work for an anti-Vitter super PAC. The Louisiana Water Coalition was the first to directly raise Vitter’s prostitution scandal on the airwaves this year.

Louisiana gubernatorial candidate and Republican Sen. David Vitter shakes hand with supporters after announcing his loss to Democrat John Bel Edwards at his election night watch party in Kenner on Saturday. Vitter said he is not going to run again for the Senate.
AP Photo/Max Becherer
Nov. 23, 2015, 8 p.m.

In Septem­ber, the su­per PAC Louisi­ana Wa­ter Co­ali­tion was the first group to air TV ads tak­ing dir­ect aim at Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter for his pros­ti­tu­tion scan­dal, an is­sue largely cred­ited with his stun­ning fail­ure to win the state’s gov­ernor’s race.

The iden­tity of those re­spons­ible for the ad’s mes­sage, however, was nev­er re­vealed—un­til now.

Cali­for­nia-based Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive Rob Stutz­man over­saw the cre­ation of the PAC’s tele­vi­sion ads, and the three ads that they ran were in­formed by re­search and polling done by Wash­ing­ton D.C.-based Demo­crat­ic poll­sters Rob Green and Adam Rosen­blatt.

When the Louisi­ana Wa­ter Co­ali­tion launched in early Septem­ber, the only par­ti­cipants iden­ti­fied were a spokes­per­son, a leg­al ad­viser and the Bat­on Rouge-based law firm fund­ing the group. The PAC was de­scribed as a “bi­par­tis­an in­de­pend­ent group” de­signed to sup­port Vit­ter al­tern­at­ives, who were, as they put it, “bet­ter than Vit­ter.” The law firm in ques­tion, Tal­bot, Car­mouche & Mar­cello, provided all of the PAC’s $1.7 mil­lion in fund­ing. One of the firm’s part­ners, Don Car­mouche told The Ad­voc­ate in early Oc­to­ber, “We just want to de­feat Dav­id Vit­ter.”

Green said the Car­mouche firm reached out to him ask­ing if he’d get in­volved in the primary in an ef­fort to pre­vent Vit­ter from mak­ing the run­off, and gave him the free­dom to em­ploy whatever mes­sage he felt was best. Green in turn reached out to Stutz­man after sample polling found that the best way to get Re­pub­lic­ans to aban­don Vit­ter was by tar­get­ing con­ser­vat­ives who would vote for an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an, par­tic­u­larly Re­pub­lic­an wo­men. Stutz­man is a Re­pub­lic­an ad maker based in Sac­ra­mento who pre­vi­ously worked as a top aide to former Gov. Arnold Schwar­zeneg­ger, and as an ad­viser to 2010 GOP gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Meg Whit­man.

The three men have paired up in the past to work on races in Cali­for­nia, most re­cently on a $12 mil­lion com­pet­it­ive state Sen­ate race fea­tur­ing two Demo­crats. “What we were do­ing in Louisi­ana was kind of born of jungle primary polit­ics in Cali­for­nia,” Green said. 

Stutz­man said he was com­pelled to get in­volved be­cause he felt that Vit­ter was a flawed can­did­ate who would im­per­il what should be a safe Re­pub­lic­an seat. Stutz­man said he sup­por­ted GOP primary can­did­ate Scott An­gelle. “My view is the herd should be thinned of our bad can­did­ates, and he might be one of the worst can­did­ates we had any­where in the coun­try as an in­cum­bent,” Stutz­man said.

Most as­sumed that Vit­ter’s pros­ti­tu­tion scan­dal was a bur­ied is­sue after he hand­ily won reelec­tion to his Sen­ate seat in 2010, and ques­tioned the use­ful­ness of bring­ing it up again. But Green said sur­vey re­search showed Vit­ter was still very vul­ner­able with a mes­sage that em­phas­ized eth­ics, char­ac­ter, and judg­ment—not just mor­al­ity. Giv­en the pres­ence of two oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans in the primary, the trio made it their mis­sion to demon­strate to voters that they had oth­er op­tions.

The three TV ads that the PAC ran dir­ectly brought up Vit­ter’s link to the D.C. Madam pros­ti­tu­tion ring, and his sep­ar­ate de­cision to keep on a staffer who was pre­vi­ously ac­cused of threat­en­ing his girl­friend, which Rosen­blatt said they ac­tu­ally found to be one of the most per­suas­ive ar­gu­ments to move con­ser­vat­ive wo­men away from Vit­ter—though the is­sue was nev­er again raised by any oth­er group or can­did­ate. A third ad em­phas­ized trust and Vit­ter’s re­fus­al to an­swer to wheth­er he ever broke the law.

The team felt Vit­ter had already demon­strated he could an­swer to the sin part, by ex­plain­ing that his wife for­gave him. They felt they had to make the cri­tique not about the pros­ti­tu­tion it­self, but about its broad­er im­plic­a­tions. “We al­ways knew Wendy Vit­ter would show up, or Wil­lie Robertson or prox­ies like him and say they’d for­giv­en him,” Stutz­man said.

“If the fo­cus is more on pros­ti­tu­tion and so forth, I mean, every­body sins. What this fight was really about in our minds wasn’t so much about the ‘ser­i­ous sin’ or the pros­ti­tu­tion. It was about judg­ment and char­ac­ter, es­pe­cially judg­ment, and it was about wo­men’s con­cerns,” Green said. “My goal was to tell the story that needed to be told, not some sen­sa­tion­al­ized Blaze Starr story,” Green con­tin­ued, re­fer­ring to the New Or­leans strip­per and bur­lesque star who had an af­fair with former Louisi­ana Gov. Earl Long in the late 1950s.

In 2010 Sen­ate race, the small num­ber of TV ads that Demo­crat Charlie Mel­ancon ran late in the game against Vit­ter mostly served to re­mind voters of the pros­ti­tu­tion or­deal, with ads with titles like “For­got­ten Crimes,” that didn’t draw much of an eth­ic­al con­trast and didn’t have the back­ing of sig­ni­fic­ant fund­ing.

In the one at­tack ad that Demo­crat­ic Gov.-elect John Bel Ed­wards ran in the run­off, he too avoided mak­ing it solely about the sin it­self, and fo­cused on Vit­ter’s choice to skip House votes as a mem­ber of Con­gress to en­gage in “ex­tra­cur­ricular activ­it­ies,” as Ed­wards puts it.

“I will tell you, it wasn’t just the is­sue between him and his wife,” Ed­wards said last Monday. “He was neg­lect­ing the du­ties he was in Con­gress to tend to. He wasn’t cast­ing key votes on the floor of the House be­cause he chose, rather than to do the job he was elec­ted to do, he chose to en­gage in all those ‘ex­tra­cur­ricular activ­it­ies,’ if you will. And so it’s not just a per­son­al is­sue between him and his wife, it is a fail­ing of his du­ties, and I be­lieve that is an ap­pro­pri­ate area for people to take in­to con­sid­er­a­tion.”

Stutz­man said their ini­tial goal was to try to lower Vit­ter’s num­bers to 18 per­cent in the Oc­to­ber primary, to al­low space for An­gelle or fel­low GOP can­did­ate Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne room “over the wall that we’d lowered to climb over.” That goal was not reached. But the three said they are pleased their ini­tial ef­fort helped re­sur­rect and in­ject the Vit­ter scan­dal in­to the race, and ul­ti­mately con­trib­ute to his de­mise. Vit­ter ac­tu­ally singled out the PAC dur­ing his first one-on-one de­bate with Ed­wards after the Oct. 24 primary. Vit­ter lamen­ted that he’d been the sub­ject of neg­at­ive ad­vert­ising, cit­ing the law­yer-backed PAC in par­tic­u­lar.

Dardenne first dropped a cas­u­al men­tion of Vit­ter’s past dur­ing a can­did­ate for­um in April, and An­gelle and Dardenne both al­luded to Vit­ter’s scan­dal in TV ads of their own and in sub­sequent de­bates. But one can ar­gue that the Louisi­ana Wa­ter Co­ali­tion got the ball rolling when they moved first to take Vit­ter to task dir­ectly.

Green, Rosen­blatt and Stutz­man didn’t stay in­volved after the primary, but cred­it the anti-Vit­ter Gumbo PAC for pick­ing up where they left off and keep­ing the race fo­cused on Vit­ter’s vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies. A dif­fer­ent ad firm was re­spons­ible for mak­ing the Louisi­ana Wa­ter Co­ali­tion’s fourth and fi­nal spot, a pos­it­ive pro-Ed­wards ad that aired dur­ing the fi­nal week of the run­off. The Gumbo PAC ads were fun­ded by the Demo­crat­ic Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation. DGA ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Elisa­beth Pear­son said they too were in­tent on fo­cus­ing on Vit­ter’s char­ac­ter and judg­ment. “It was about who you trust to be your gov­ernor,” said Pear­son.  

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