David Vitter lurches toward a humiliating defeat: A record of scandal and hypocrisy finally catches up to him

The odious senator barely makes Louisiana's gubernatorial runoff -- but the real humbling hasn't even arrived yet

Published October 26, 2015 8:47PM (EDT)

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

I wrote a few weeks ago that Louisiana, a solidly red state, was primed for Democratic victories thanks in part to Bobby Jindal’s tragic tenure. While the initial results of this weekend’s election were mixed, it appears the political winds are indeed shifting. This is especially true of the gubernatorial race, which pitted frontrunner David Vitter against two other Republicans as well as the Democratic candidate, John Bel Edwards.

Louisiana employs a peculiar election system known as a jungle primary, which means all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, compete on a single ballot. If no one gets a majority, the top two candidates compete in a runoff election. On Saturday, Edwards carried 40 percent of the vote to Vitter’s 23 percent (almost a complete reversal of the polling data from a year ago). This means the Edwards will face Vitter in a runoff next month. And Edwards, depending on whom you ask, is now the favorite.

For months, David Vitter was the prohibitive frontrunner. He has name recognition, political clout, a plethora of cash, and a state whose demographics increasingly favor conservative Republicans. But this is a unique political climate. Jindal, one of the worst governors in the history of the state, has made toxic everything he touched, including the Republican brand. Running as a Republican gubernatorial candidate after Jindal was always going to be tricky. In addition to that, Vitter, as James Carville told Salon recently, is “one of the most flawed candidates in American politics.”

Calling Vitter “flawed” borders on charitable, in my view. The man’s political resume is shot through with sin. There’s the famous D.C. Madam Scandal of 2007, which exposed Vitter's extramarital peccadillos with sex workers (an unfortunate finding for a family values conservative). Miraculously, Vitter managed to recover from this and was poised to win the governorship. But things have spiraled out of control for Vitter in the last month so, with one fiasco after another, and now his entire campaign has cratered.

First there was a story published by Jason Berry, an investigative reporter who writes for the blog, American Zombie. Berry interviewed Wendy Ellis, a former prostitute in New Orleans, who claims to have serviced Vitter between 1998 and 2000. She also alleges that Vitter requested that she have an abortion after he impregnated her, a claim Vitter vehemently denies. Berry’s story has since unraveled, but there’s enough smoke to sway voters, particularly those who are familiar with Vitter’s philandering past.

Vitter’s follies continued last week when a private investigator his campaign hired, a man named Robert Frenzel, was caught clandestinely recording a conversation between a local sheriff, a state senator, and a lawyer with ties to the Democratic Party. The PI was promptly arrested, after which Vitter released a vacuous statement about his intent to spy on the lawyer, not the sheriff. However you spin it, writes Lamar White, a prominent Louisiana blogger, it seems “David Vitter hired and paid someone $130,000 to spy on John Cummings, a private citizen, because David Vitter is absolutely terrified about what John Cummings knows.” No one knows for sure what Cummings knows, but it’s not hard to imagine what it’s about (hint: prostitutes).

On the same day his PI was arrested, Vitter was involved in a minor car accident. What’s interesting, though, as Manny Schewitz first reported yesterday, is that the driver of Vitter’s vehicle was Courtney Gaustella Callihan, a woman linked to Vitter’s Super PAC. Schewitz writes:

The driver was 36-year old Courtney Gaustella Callihan, the wife of Bill Callihan, a director at Capital One Bank. Their home address is also listed as the address for Fund for Louisiana, the Super PAC backing Vitter…So it would make sense that David Vitter would want to leave the scene, due to the fact that Mrs. Callihan is possibly connected to a Super PAC that is supporting his gubernatorial campaign. News reports list her name as Courtney Guastella, but fail to mention her married name which ties her to her husband.

This matters because, if it’s true, Vitter may be in violation of federal election laws. Regardless, though, it’s more of the same from Vitter, a man now irremediably tainted by scandal and hypocrisy.

Trying to predict what will happen in the runoff election is difficult. Bob Mann, a columnist for The Times-Picayune in Baton Rouge, LA, thinks Edwards has the advantage:

Edwards should start this runoff with a floor of about 43 percent or 44 percent of the vote, maybe a point higher. That means he must pick up only an additional 6 or 7 percentage points from the combined 34 percent of Angelle and Dardenne [the two Republicans who didn’t make the runoff] – I’m already giving him about 4 points of that vote, i.e. the Democrats who supported the two other Republicans. If a fourth to a third of Angelle and Dardenne voters are truly unwilling to vote for Vitter (a not-unreasonable assumption), Edwards may have all the votes he needs.

Mann’s assumptions are more than justified. Mike Henderson, a researcher at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, analyzed the favorability numbers of Angelle and Dardenne and found that a majority of their supporters are unsure about Edwards, the Democrat, but positively dislike Vitter. Edwards can easily swing enough Republicans to win the runoff, in other words.

It’s possible that Vitter could still win the race, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely. Bobby Jindal didn’t help, but much of this is about Vitter, whose record – personally and politically – is now so objectively awful that Republican voters are running away from him.

An Edwards victory won’t make Louisiana a blue state, but it’s a step in the right direction for Louisiana Democrats, many of whom have suffered long enough under the confused and corrupt leadership of unaccountable Republicans.

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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