David Vitter Is Desperately Seeking Redemption in the Louisiana Governor’s Race

The GOP senator’s decade-old prostitution scandal has become the defining issue in the race, but he’s still hoping conservatives rally to his side in the campaign’s final days.

Sen. David Vitter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Monday.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Nov. 17, 2015, 9:38 a.m.

BAT­ON ROUGE, La.—Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter and his wife were walk­ing in a park­ing lot to their car late Sunday af­ter­noon after cam­paign­ing at a church-sponsored chili-gumbo cook-off in a rur­al town west of Bat­on Rouge. After the pair piled in­to an SUV driv­en by a young staffer, there was a re­sound­ing boom and then si­lence. The car had backed dir­ectly in­to the car of an­oth­er Vit­ter aide. The two cars were den­ted and the tail­light of the SUV shattered.

If that’s not a meta­phor for a bruised and battered Vit­ter cam­paign days out from this Sat­urday’s Louisi­ana cam­paign for gov­ernor, it’s not clear what is. Vit­ter’s cam­paign is rolling to­ward the fin­ish line at full speed, drag­ging the dam­age of self-in­flic­ted wounds like a de­tached bump­er.

Polls show Vit­ter badly trail­ing Demo­crat John Bel Ed­wards—a West Point grad and former Army Ranger who has po­si­tioned him­self as a pro-gun, pro-life cent­rist. Re­cog­ni­tion that the end could be near seems to have sparked a change in Vit­ter at the race’s close. Vit­ter has fam­ously dodged re­port­ers since 2007 when news of his con­nec­tion to the D.C. Madam pros­ti­tu­tion ring broke. But at events across the state, and after a rauc­ous fi­nal tele­vised de­bate Monday night, Vit­ter stood be­fore re­port­ers and fi­nally, after years of si­lence—faced per­son­al ques­tions about the sor­did scan­dal.

The Monday de­bate fea­tured a series of heated ex­changes between Ed­wards and Vit­ter over his scan­dal. A de­fens­ive Vit­ter at one point yelled in ex­as­per­a­tion, “It was 15 years ago!” The live audi­ence ad­ded to the high-stakes drama. Both cam­paigns packed the high school aud­it­or­i­um with sup­port­ers. Vit­ter fans yelled, “Move on,” and “We’re over it,” every time the scan­dal came up—which was early and of­ten.

“That is the most im­port­ant ex­per­i­ence of my life, earn­ing that re­demp­tion,” Vit­ter said, ex­plain­ing why he fi­nally chose to speak to his past. Vit­ter’s choice to meet the press now—at the 11th hour—likely re­flects an aware­ness of just how deeply dam­aged he has been by a re­sur­gent de­bate over his past in the gubernat­ori­al race. In the fi­nal weeks of the race, he has aired ads apo­lo­giz­ing for his past mis­con­duct.

Vit­ter’s wife, Wendy, stood by his side for the post-de­bate press scrum and at every single cam­paign stop over the week­end—pos­ing in pic­tures, stand­ing next to her hus­band at po­di­ums, and of­fer­ing po­lite con­ver­sa­tion to pass­ersby. By her es­tim­a­tion, the two at­ten­ded 10 events in two days—part of a rig­or­ous sched­ule in hopes of a late up­set. At cam­paign events, her pres­ence shiel­ded Vit­ter against any un­com­fort­able ques­tions from crit­ics. Wan­der­ing around the church cook-off on Sunday Wendy Vit­ter gently nudged re­port­ers in the dir­ec­tion of strong Vit­ter sup­port­ers: “If you’re try­ing to talk to people, did you hear that? He said he’s voted for Dav­id every single time.”

On the trail, Dav­id Vit­ter pro­jec­ted a tone of sub­dued op­tim­ism. Both Vit­ter and his wife said they hoped voters would fo­cus on the is­sues in the fi­nal days, not “that”—as they each re­ferred to the sen­at­or’s past dal­li­ances.

“I know he doesn’t ac­cept it. He’s a hard cam­paign­er. So he will fight to the very end to try to fig­ure out how to change the con­ver­sa­tion,” said former Demo­crat­ic Gov. Kath­leen Blanco, who is sup­port­ing Ed­wards.  

Vit­ter’s friends and sup­port­ers said they were sur­prised that Ed­wards and al­lied out­side groups have at­tacked him so dir­ectly and ag­gress­ively over his past per­son­al scan­dal. “When the dark ad came out last week, it took every­body by sur­prise,” said As­cen­sion Par­ish Sher­iff Jeff Wiley, a Vit­ter sup­port­er, re­fer­ring to an Ed­wards ad ac­cus­ing Vit­ter of pri­or­it­iz­ing pros­ti­tutes over na­tion­al se­cur­ity.  

Asked why he’s trail­ing in the polls, Vit­ter blamed his woes on the un­pop­ular­ity of GOP Gov. Bobby Jin­dal. “I think it’s two big factors. I think it’s Bobby Jin­dal. I think he has set the stage for this race that makes it more dif­fi­cult for Re­pub­lic­ans. And No. 2, I think it’s $8 mil­lion in at­tack ads against me, very vi­cious ads, all fo­cused on me throughout the primary, and that clearly took a toll,” Vit­ter said.

Us­ing Jin­dal as a scape­goat doesn’t sit well with Jin­dal loy­al­ists, who don’t think the Re­pub­lic­an brand at-large has been sul­lied—only that of Vit­ter. “Sixty per­cent of primary voters voted for Re­pub­lic­ans,” said Brad Todd, a GOP poll­ster work­ing for Jin­dal’s su­per PAC. Among Vit­ter’s two Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents in that Oc­to­ber 24 primary, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne is sup­port­ing Ed­wards and Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion­er Scott An­gelle is stay­ing neut­ral. An­gelle spent the week­end duck hunt­ing.

Trail­ing in the polls, Vit­ter has aired a series of pro­voc­at­ive ads de­signed to fire up the most con­ser­vat­ive Louisi­ana voters. In the wake of the ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Par­is, Vit­ter homed in on se­cur­ity is­sues, par­tic­u­larly the po­ten­tial in­flux of 10,000 Syr­i­an refugees in­to the United States, in­clud­ing some to Louisi­ana. The cam­paign is now air­ing an ad al­leging: “Obama is send­ing Syr­i­an refugees to Louisi­ana, and John Bel Ed­wards pledged to work with him to bring them here!” Vit­ter is also hyp­ing Ed­wards’s de­cision to go to a meet-and-greet at a “hip-hop” nightclub in New Or­leans in­stead of a so­cially con­ser­vat­ive for­um last Thursday—also the sub­ject of a last-minute at­tack ad.

Vit­ter also re­cruited on-the trail help over the week­end from con­ser­vat­ive fig­ures, in­clud­ing Tony Per­kins, the pres­id­ent of the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil, and Jenny Beth Mar­tin, founder of the Tea Party Pat­ri­ots. Two Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, Ted Cruz and Rick San­tor­um, came to bat for Vit­ter by re­cord­ing rob­ocalls. Vit­ter’s cam­paign also talked with Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign about hav­ing Trump as­sist in some way, but it nev­er panned out. “I know there were some dis­cus­sions, but it nev­er got that spe­cif­ic at all. As far as I know, it was a very gen­er­al dis­cus­sion and it just didn’t work out,” Vit­ter said.

At a watch party for the LSU-Arkan­sas foot­ball game Sat­urday, Vit­ter told sup­port­ers: “At this point, the de­bate is pretty much over. At this point it’s all about who shows up.” Vit­ter poll­ster John Diez said the cam­paign’s in­tern­al polls show Vit­ter slowly in­creas­ing sup­port among con­ser­vat­ive white voters. Ed­wards needs about 30 per­cent of the state’s white vote to pre­vail, a num­ber that polls show well with­in reach.

“There are a lot of people that don’t know what de­cision to make. I get phone calls all the time about it, ask­ing ‘What do I do? Do I stay home, do I vote for John Bel or do I vote for Dav­id Vit­ter?’ And I think a lot of Re­pub­lic­ans are go­ing to stay home,” said Ry­an Cross, An­gelle’s cam­paign man­ager. Cross bluntly pre­dicted: “Dav­id can’t win.”  

Demo­crats are care­ful to couch their op­tim­ism with a heavy dose of cau­tion. “We’re ex­tremely ex­cited. We know that we have the lead, we have the mo­mentum,” Ed­wards said. “Look, the race al­ways gets tight­er to­wards the end. That’s go­ing to hap­pen, I sus­pect.”

“We haven’t walked the whole walk yet. We still have a few days,” cau­tioned Blanco.

One loc­al Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive put it this way: In Louisi­ana, “there’s nobody more fear­ful than a Demo­crat with good news.”

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