A Newer, Softer David Vitter?

Vitter’s spent most of his time in the Senate as a conservative agitator on the margins. If elected governor some of that could change.

Sen. David Vitter in 2013.
National Journal
Oct. 18, 2015, 8 p.m.

Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter is in the fi­nal stages of his quest to be­come Louisi­ana’s next gov­ernor, a goal he’s framed as the cap­stone of his ca­reer and his last at­tempt at elec­ted of­fice. Des­pite some pub­lic polling show­ing him fa­cing a closer-than-ex­pec­ted race against his likely Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent in a Novem­ber run­off, it re­mains un­likely Vit­ter will lose, which leads to the ques­tion: What kind of gov­ernor will Vit­ter be?

“There’s a lot of spec­u­la­tion in the state about what kind of a gov­ernor would Vit­ter be, be­cause it’s easi­er in the Sen­ate to be a bomb throw­er and a can­tan­ker­ous per­son, and that’s something we’re not really as used to in an ex­ec­ut­ive-type role,” said G. Pear­son Cross, a polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Louisi­ana at La­fay­ette.

Based on cam­paign rhet­or­ic, if Vit­ter is elec­ted he’s likely to re­main just as so­cially and fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive as he’s been in Con­gress, but he has hin­ted at pos­sibly edging to­ward the cen­ter on some is­sues.

Hav­ing spent most of his two terms in the Sen­ate as one of the most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers of the minor­ity party, Vit­ter is best known as a con­ser­vat­ive agit­at­or on is­sues like im­mig­ra­tion and health care. But when he launched his cam­paign for gov­ernor in Janu­ary, Vit­ter said that ul­ti­mately, “I be­lieve as our next gov­ernor I can have a big­ger im­pact,” not­ing that he’ll have “many more tools” at his dis­pos­al to pur­sue the kinds of changes he’s long sought. He also said he was run­ning “to take on the im­port­ant is­sues and make the hard de­cisions.” Hard de­cisions won’t be dif­fi­cult to find. Who­ever wins the Louisi­ana gov­ernor’s race will be stuck with the un­en­vi­able job of con­front­ing the state’s per­sist­ent budget prob­lems.

One ma­jor thread that’s likely to weave it­self in­to a po­ten­tial gov­ernor­ship is Vit­ter’s pro­cliv­ity for root­ing out cor­rup­tion and waste and strip­ping those in power of what he sees as un­fair perks and priv­ileges—a zeal that can at times seem over­bear­ing, but has also won him the sup­port of Louisi­anans. There is a pop­u­list streak that binds to­geth­er some seem­ingly dis­par­ate ef­forts throughout his ca­reer—like strip­ping mem­bers of Con­gress and their staff of spe­cial health sub­sidies and work­ing to curb ex­ec­ut­ive pay—that have led him to both tick off fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans and oc­ca­sion­ally forge un­likely al­li­ances with Demo­crats. On top of his re­cent ef­forts on hot-but­ton is­sues like sanc­tu­ary cit­ies and Planned Par­ent­hood, he’s also co­sponsored bills with Demo­crat­ic Sen. Sher­rod Brown to hold big banks ac­count­able for the mis­takes of the fin­an­cial crisis, and paired up this year with Demo­crat­ic Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren to cap the ex­ec­ut­ive pay of those at the gov­ern­ment-backed mort­gage lenders Fan­nie Mae and Fred­die Mac. In his cur­rent bid for gov­ernor, Vit­ter is rail­ing against money wasted on “thou­sands of un­ne­ces­sary state cars.”

In list­ing his top ac­com­plish­ments, Vit­ter is most likely to point to bi­par­tis­an ef­forts help­ful to Louisi­ana, like se­cur­ing loans and flood-in­sur­ance money to as­sist re­cov­ery ef­forts from Hur­ricane Kat­rina, or a wa­ter-re­sources bill he worked on with Demo­crat­ic Sen. Bar­bara Box­er.

“I have a long his­tory of chal­len­ging the status quo by re­fus­ing my Con­gres­sion­al pen­sion and fight­ing to pass terms lim­its, elim­in­ate the Obama­care ex­emp­tion for Con­gress, and end auto­mat­ic pay raises,” Vit­ter said in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Too many politi­cians are liv­ing on a dif­fer­ent plan­et, and we need to bring them back down to earth in or­der to ef­fect­ively gov­ern. That’s how I al­ways have, and al­ways will lead.” 

These ef­forts have al­tern­at­ively been viewed as right­eous or ri­dicu­lous, or some­times fruit­less de­pend­ing on the cause. But they stem from the same im­pulse, one that will guide him if elec­ted gov­ernor.

Op­er­at­ing as one of the most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers of the minor­ity party in the Sen­ate, Vit­ter hasn’t been in­teg­ral to many high-pro­file budget or policy de­bates in re­cent years. But that would change if he’s elec­ted gov­ernor and as­signed to work with a state le­gis­lature over­whelm­ingly con­trolled by Re­pub­lic­ans. By most ap­pear­ances, Vit­ter has bet­ter re­la­tion­ships with mem­bers of the Louisi­ana le­gis­lature than he does with some col­leagues in the Sen­ate, which could come in handy when tough votes are re­quired to ad­dress the state’s budget prob­lems. At the very least, Vit­ter’s on bet­ter terms with loc­al Re­pub­lic­ans than out­go­ing Gov. Bobby Jin­dal.

“You couldn’t have worse. Jin­dal had ter­rible re­la­tions with the le­gis­lature, mostly be­cause he just ig­nored them,” Cross said.

Vit­ter stayed in­volved in state polit­ics while in Con­gress. He formed the Louisi­ana Com­mit­tee for a Re­pub­lic­an Ma­jor­ity in 2005 to help elect con­ser­vat­ives to the le­gis­lature, and has be­come act­ive once again throughout his gubernat­ori­al cam­paign. His cam­paign or­gan­ized a dozen policy-fo­cused lead­er­ship for­ums between last fall and spring, and each were at­ten­ded by at least a hand­ful of le­gis­lat­ors—most of whom, his cam­paign be­lieves, have his per­son­al cell num­ber. Vit­ter even went so far as to an­nounce his cell-phone num­ber to a crowd at a loc­al meet­ing this sum­mer in or­der to em­phas­ize his ac­cess­ib­il­ity re­l­at­ive to Jin­dal. (That ac­cess­ib­il­ity doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily ex­tend to the press, which he’s no­tori­ously dodged since his dec­ade-old pros­ti­tu­tion scan­dal. The lead­er­ship for­ums were closed to the press and the pub­lic.)

“Most would say he’s been very suc­cess­ful, es­pe­cially with Re­pub­lic­ans, at at­tempt­ing to al­lay those fears that he’s a rabble rouser and is not go­ing to be able to work with any­one,” said Bernie Pin­son­at, a poll­ster for the Bat­on Rouge-based South­ern Me­dia & Opin­ion Re­search.

It also re­mains pos­sible that Vit­ter the gov­ernor could be more mod­er­ate, or at least more will­ing to com­prom­ise on some is­sues than Vit­ter the sen­at­or. When he first an­nounced his in­ten­tion to run for gov­ernor in 2014, Vit­ter looked ready to run on a more mod­er­ate plat­form. He came out in sup­port of Com­mon Core, and talked early on about po­ten­tially ac­cept­ing Medi­caid ex­pan­sion. But as he’s fought off small in­roads made by one Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent seek­ing to com­pete for the title of “most con­ser­vat­ive,” Vit­ter’s backed off. He re­versed him­self on Com­mon Core, and made an ag­gress­ive push in re­cent weeks to re­mind voters of his con­ser­vat­ive bona fides on is­sues like abor­tion, guns, and food stamps. He has ex­pressed open­ness, however, to re­form­ing a costly state-col­lege schol­ar­ship pro­gram, which puts him on the op­pos­ite side of the is­sue from Jin­dal. And des­pite his repu­ta­tion as an anti-Obama­care cru­sader in Con­gress, Vit­ter has stuck by his open­ness to ac­cept­ing fed­er­al money for Medi­caid ex­pan­sion un­der cer­tain con­di­tions.

“If he did that, it would be a big deal. That would be a real de­par­ture from where we were with Gov­ernor Jin­dal,” Cross said. “That’s the thing about Vit­ter—he’s a little bit of a wild card oc­ca­sion­ally.”  

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