David Vitter's Louisiana nightmare: He's losing his race for governor -- and he has only himself (and Bobby Jindal) to blame

The scandal-tainted senator has long been considered the gubernatorial frontrunner. Now, all bets are off

Published September 25, 2015 6:47PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Sean Gardner)
(Reuters/Sean Gardner)

The Bobby Jindal experiment began in 2008. For most left-leaning Louisianans, Jindal’s election as governor wasn’t great news, but neither was it terrible. Awkward and amateurish, Jindal nevertheless appeared smart and competent. Most people (myself included) assumed he’d do a reasonably good job. As the country now knows, Jindal is a deplorable hack with a near-heroic incapacity for shame. His record of failures in Louisiana is spectacular and too long to catalog here (If you’ve got the time, I noted a few back in May).

What’s interesting now is the race to succeed Jindal. For months, David Vitter, the unchaste Republican senator, was considered the frontrunner. Which is not terribly surprising. Louisiana is a red state. The demographics, particularly after Hurricane Katrina's displacement of African American voters, heavily favor Republicans. Vitter, despite his penchant for prostitutes, seemed to be coasting to the Governor’s mansion on money and name recognition alone.

But that’s no longer the case.There are signs that Jindal’s transcendentally awful tenure (his approval rating at home is hovering around 32%) may result in the election of a Democratic governor in Louisiana. Vitter, for all this ethical issues, was easily re-elected in 2010, but that was a landslide year for the GOP and Vitter wasn’t running away from a Republican governor’s calamitous 8-year record. Not so today. Vitter is in serious trouble, and his desperation is increasingly obvious. According to a poll released this week by Public Policy Polling, Vitter’s brand is badly damaged. He’s now viewed unfavorably by 51% of Louisianans and by 44% of Louisiana Republicans (both numbers have risen considerably in the last year or so). The most shocking numbers, however, are the head-to-head results between Vitter and the lone Democratic candidate, John Bel Edwards. As of now, Edwards lead Vitter 50/38 among likely voters, almost a complete reversal of the numbers a year ago.

This is great news for Louisiana Democrats. Vitter, whose clumsy cocksmanship has become a national punchline, would be a disaster for Louisiana as governor. For the unfamiliar, Vitter was the target of the famous “D.C. Madam Scandal.” As the senator himself confessed, he committed “serious sins" as a member of the House of Representatives -- including soliciting prostitutes twice during House votes and finagling FEC regulations to use campaign money to pay off legal fees.

The Vitter camp's worry about these problems is showing in its campaign tactics. Vitter can’t run on his record (personal or otherwise) and, thanks to Jindal, the Republican brand is too toxic to lean on in the state. So Vitter (who, incidentally, is from the same district as David Duke, the former Klansman and Louisiana state representative) has decided to dog whistle to his white nativist base instead. The disgraced senator has focused primarily on two non-issues: fomenting outrage over New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposal to relocate Confederate monuments and on wildly exaggerated claims about food stamp fraud in Louisiana. In a state with an eroding coastline and crises in health care and higher education, this is what Vitter is talking about, and everyone knows why. As Louisiana blogger Lamar White noted, “David Vitter apparently believes that, in order to win, he must appeal, once again, to white racists.”

It’s too soon to say whether Vitter’s racist gambit will work. But most observers agree that his lumbering campaign is a sign of desperation. James Carville, whom I recently spoke to about the race, is surprised at how poorly Vitter is doing. Carville, who returned to Louisiana several years ago, says “Vitter is having a rougher time than I expected.”

“His sex scandal is probably the third reason people don’t like him,” Carville concluded. “Although they don’t get along, Vitter has the stench of Jindal on him. He’s also from Washington [at a time when anti-establishment sentiment is high]. And then there’s the atmospherics of the sex scandal, which are always a problem for Vitter.”

Vitter, regrettably, may still win this election, if for no other reason than that the demographics benefit him. He also has considerably more money than any of the other candidates. So far, Vitter has spent most of his time attacking his two Republican rivals. His strategy, as Carville pointed out, is “to get in a runoff with Edwards.” (All candidates compete in an October 24 "jungle primary," and if no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the top two finishers advance to a November 21 runoff.) If that happens (and it seems likely), Vitter will be more than competitive, especially if the supporters of the other Republicans flock to him over Edwards.

Whatever happens, the strength of the Democratic candidate in this race says something significant about Jindal and Vitter. It shows how uncommonly bad Jindal’s reign as governor has been. So bad, in fact, that disdain for Jindal is the one thing the preponderance of Louisianans share at the moment. No matter how fast he runs away, Vitter still smells of Jindal: They’re from the same party, the same part of the state, and they’ve had similar career trajectories – clearly that’s not lost on voters. Vitter’s foibles also reveal how weak a candidate he really is. It turns out that Louisianans notice (however reluctantly) when a moralizing family values conservative is caught whoremongering on the public’s dime.

And that, if nothing else, is encouraging.

Reporter Allegedly Fired After Asking Senator About Prostitutes

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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2015 Elections Aol_on Bobby Jindal David Vitter James Carville Louisiana Louisiana Gubernatorial Race