David Vitter Tries To Overcome Scandal In His Gubernatorial Bid

Louisiana voters will be rendering their verdict about the senator’s personal conduct in Saturday’s primary.

Sen. David Vitter faces Louisiana voters for the second time since his infamous prostitution scandal.
AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte
Oct. 22, 2015, 8 p.m.

Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter has been the fa­vor­ite to be­come Louisi­ana’s next gov­ernor since he an­nounced his cam­paign in Janu­ary. But he’s fa­cing a rock­i­er-than-ex­pec­ted cam­paign, with Re­pub­lic­ans at­tack­ing his per­son­al in­teg­rity and a cent­rist Demo­crat emer­ging as a cred­ible can­did­ate.

On Sat­urday, Louisi­ana voters will choose among four lead­ing can­did­ates in the gubernat­ori­al primary: Vit­ter, Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion­er Scott An­gelle—a Demo­crat-turned-Re­pub­lic­an who is a former ap­pointee of Gov. Bobby Jin­dal—Re­pub­lic­an Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, and former state Rep. John Bel Ed­wards, the lone Demo­crat run­ning com­pet­it­ively in the race. There are five oth­er can­did­ates, in­clud­ing two oth­er Demo­crats, but none are ex­pec­ted to win a sig­ni­fic­ant share of the vote.

If no can­did­ate wins a ma­jor­ity of sup­port on Sat­urday—which is in­creas­ingly likely—then the top two vote get­ters will ad­vance to a run­off elec­tion Nov. 21. Pub­lic polls in­dic­ate a run­off between Ed­wards and Vit­ter is likely, un­less an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an squeezes enough votes from Vit­ter to claim the second run­off spot, an out­side pos­sib­il­ity giv­en Vit­ter’s unique vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies.

The race has been defined by out­go­ing Gov. Bobby Jin­dal’s un­pop­ular­ity and the budget prob­lems that he’ll leave be­hind. All four can­did­ates have sought to draw dis­tinc­tions between them­selves and Jin­dal over both his per­son­al style—Jin­dal is cast as in­ac­cess­ible and too fo­cused on his polit­ic­al am­bi­tions at the ex­pense of gov­ern­ing—and on policy. Jin­dal nev­er made an en­dorse­ment in the race to re­place him, and none of the Re­pub­lic­ans in the race are en­dors­ing Jin­dal’s pres­id­en­tial bid.

In re­cent weeks, however, the race has been dom­in­ated by a re­newed de­bate over Vit­ter’s scan­dal-clad past. In 2007, Vit­ter ad­mit­ted to a “very ser­i­ous sin” after his cell-phone num­ber ap­peared in the re­cords of a D.C. es­cort ser­vice ac­cused of traf­fick­ing in pros­ti­tu­tion. A brothel in New Or­leans also claimed Vit­ter was a former cli­ent be­fore it was shut down in 2001. Vit­ter has avoided the sub­ject dur­ing his cam­paign for gov­ernor, but his op­pon­ents have been eager to use the murk and the myth sur­round­ing the top­ic to draw an eth­ic­al con­trast. 

Vit­ter sur­vived these types of at­tacks when he ran for reelec­tion to the Sen­ate in 2010, but this year’s open primary has presen­ted a more chal­len­ging dy­nam­ic. Vit­ter this year faced at­tacks from fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans as well as out­side PACs hop­ing to elect “Any­one But Vit­ter,” a tagline one group ad­op­ted. This year’s Louisi­ana gubernat­ori­al race is the first to fea­ture su­per PACs, which opened up av­en­ues for Vit­ter sup­port­ers and op­pon­ents to dump cash in­to the race and on the air­waves.

“It is likely, his­tor­ic­ally and math­em­at­ic­ally, that Ed­wards has some sort of floor. But a per­son who doesn’t have a floor is Vit­ter,” said Dave Car­ney, a Dardenne cam­paign ad­viser. “The real ques­tion is which Re­pub­lic­an is go­ing to be in the run­off.”

An­gelle and Dardenne have been com­pet­ing with Vit­ter for that second run­off spot. An­gelle is primar­ily com­pet­ing for con­ser­vat­ive votes and offered some of the most poin­ted at­tacks against Vit­ter’s char­ac­ter. In a fi­nal tele­vised de­bate on Wed­nes­day at Louisi­ana State Uni­versity, in which Vit­ter did not par­ti­cip­ate, An­gelle said, “We have a stench that is get­ting ready to come over Louisi­ana, if we elect Dav­id Vit­ter as gov­ernor … There is a shad­ow that has been cast over Sen­at­or Vit­ter, a shad­ow that if it con­tin­ues, will fol­low Louisi­ana. When that fol­lows Louisi­ana, it hurts our abil­ity to cre­ate jobs. It hurts our abil­ity to grow our eco­nomy. We can’t have a cava­lier at­ti­tude about this. I un­der­stand a ser­i­ous sin. It is now per­haps a life­style that we need to ex­am­ine, a life­style that Louisi­ana can­not af­ford.” In An­gelle’s clos­ing TV ad, he ends by say­ing, “I want your vote, and I won’t ever em­bar­rass you.”

Dardenne, mean­while, has tacked to the middle on some is­sues. He is the only can­did­ate who says he would con­sider rais­ing taxes to ad­dress the state’s budget prob­lems. He too al­ludes to Vit­ter’s scan­dals, say­ing in his cam­paign ads he’s gov­erned “without a hint of scan­dal.”

An­gelle and Dardenne’s dual pres­ence, however, has split sup­port among Re­pub­lic­ans look­ing for an al­tern­at­ive to Vit­ter, of­fer­ing Vit­ter a clear­er path to the run­off.

“[Vit­ter] com­mands 50 per­cent of all Re­pub­lic­ans in Louisi­ana and some of what we call Bubba Demo­crats, and he’s a Re­pub­lic­an so he gets a lot of white sup­port,” said Bernie Pin­son­at, a poll­ster for the Bat­on Rouge-based South­ern Me­dia & Opin­ion Re­search. “But Demo­crats don’t like him, some Re­pub­lic­ans don’t like him and some wo­men have prob­lems with the scan­dal so, he has his prob­lems here. But he also dom­in­ates Louisi­ana with money and with his base, and no one else has the kind of base he has.”

“I don’t think either An­gelle or Dardenne have made a sig­ni­fic­ant enough move to get past Ed­wards or Vit­ter,” said G. Pear­son Cross, a polit­ic­al sci­en­ce pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Louisi­ana at La­fay­ette.

Vit­ter also heads in­to the Sat­urday primary with the back­ing of the ma­jor­ity of Louisi­ana’s mostly Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion - many of whom are eye­ing his Sen­ate seat should it be­come open if he wins – in ad­di­tion to the most money stowed away for a run­off, and high-pro­file sup­port from five of the Re­pub­lic­an 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates.

In a run­off, whichever Re­pub­lic­an comes out on top on Sat­urday will likely be up against Ed­wards, a state rep­res­ent­at­ive with a re­l­at­ively mod­er­ate pro­file. Ed­wards has been play­ing up his op­pos­i­tion to abor­tion, sup­port for gun rights, and mil­it­ary ex­per­i­ence. He’s a cred­ible can­did­ate who could run com­pet­it­ively against Vit­ter be­cause of the Re­pub­lic­an’s prob­lems, par­tic­u­larly with wo­men voters. However, Ed­wards faces the ex­tremely tough task of over­com­ing Louisi­ana’s aver­sion to the na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic brand, and poor track re­cord of elect­ing Demo­crats in re­cent years.

The Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation isn’t en­dors­ing any­one in the primary, but has already spent more than $1 mil­lion on TV ads at­tack­ing Ed­wards and ty­ing him to Pres­id­ent Obama. “Louisi­ana voters have three strong con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers to choose from to be their next gov­ernor in Dav­id Vit­ter, Jay Dardenne and Scott An­gelle. A vote for John Bel Ed­wards, however, would be a vote for Barack Obama, Obama’s failed policies, big­ger gov­ern­ment and high­er taxes,” said RGA spokes­man Jon Thompson.  

The Demo­crat­ic Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation doesn’t have plans to spend money on a run­off, but isn’t rul­ing it out. “We’re keep­ing an eye on the race and we’ll be mak­ing spend­ing de­cisions as time goes on. But I think every­one is go­ing to re­as­sess if there’s a run­off in what way they can in­vest, and we will be among that group,” said DGA com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or Jared Leo­pold.

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