It’s been an article of faith for almost two years in Louisiana that U.S. Sen. David Vitter would become the state’s next governor. Politicians and political observers here (this writer included) resigned themselves to the idea that the senior Republican senator would almost certainly succeed two-term Gov. Bobby Jindal, who steps down in January. Vitter aggressively leveraged that assumption to raise more than $10 million for his campaign and a supportive super PAC, which only added to the faith about his inevitability.
That Vitter would again loom so large in Louisiana politics would have been a ridiculous suggestion eight years ago, in the summer of 2007, when a prostitution scandal nearly ruined his career. Vitter apologized for his “serious sin.” Afterward, he focused on his Senate work and labored to redeem himself with constituents. His rehabilitation seemed complete in 2010 when he faced re-election and dispatched his Democratic opponent in a landslide.
Last year, Vitter began flexing his renewed political muscles. He prominently backed then-U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy against the state’s three-term Democratic U.S. senator, Mary Landrieu. Cassidy was a flawed candidate, but he had Vitter’s strong support and his former communications director running his campaign. Cassidy beat Landrieu handily in an election that became a referendum on President Obama. With Vitter’s help, Cassidy had vanquished the only remaining Democrat to hold statewide office in Louisiana.
Invigorated, Vitter began 2015 as the early favorite to replace Jindal, despite eventually drawing two prominent Republican opponents and a little-known Democratic challenger.
Then, a strange thing happened on Vitter’s stroll to the Louisiana governor’s mansion. In the state’s Oct. 24 primary (candidates of all parties run in a so-called “open primary”), Vitter nearly missed the Nov. 21 runoff election. He earned only 23 percent of the vote, trailing his lone Democratic opponent, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, by 17 points.
Vitter has been reeling like a punch-drunk boxer for more than two weeks. He is far behind Edwards in every poll released since the primary and now faces new, potentially fatal allegations regarding his connection to a Washington, D.C., prostitution service.
Last Friday, Edwards released an explosive new spot alleging that Vitter missed a Feb. 27, 2001, U.S. House vote honoring slain American soldiers while he waited on a phone call from a prostitute. It was the first time anyone had credibly suggested that Vitter’s prostitution habit in the late 1990s and early 2000s had influenced the performance of his public duties.
Some observers have questioned the wisdom of a strident, negative attack from Edwards, who appears to be sitting on a comfortable lead. The Edwards campaign, however, surely noted events last week in Kentucky. Republican Matt Bevin shocked the political world and handily won that state’s governorship, despite ample polling that showed him trailing his Democratic opponent.
Not content to sit on his lead, Edwards went for Vitter’s throat. The spot says Vitter “answered a prostitute’s call minutes after he skipped a vote honoring 28 soldiers, who gave their lives in defense of our freedoms. David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots.” One Edwards’ intimate told me he regarded the commercial as “a kill shot.”
This time last year, Vitter surely would not have imagined he would now be fighting for his political life. It’s not only that his once-certain election as governor is in jeopardy. The stakes are even higher. If he loses this race, a bevy of potential Republican challengers will pounce, eager to finish him off in November 2016, when he would face re-election to the U.S. Senate. If Vitter loses next week, there will be blood in Louisiana’s political waters. He could lose everything.
Overall, it’s a stunning reversal for Vitter and the Louisiana Republican Party.
For the past two years, however, Vitter’s erstwhile aura of inevitability – combined with his history of invincibility (he has never lost an election) – had made for a powerful and intoxicating brew. And Vitter and his supporters imbibed generously. That potent brew also gave Vitter one additional advantage to draw supporters to his side: fear.
Louisiana governors are among the most powerful in the country. The office has impressive constitutional authority, including the line-item veto and control over the state’s capital construction budget (useful for commanding the loyalty of legislators eager to bring home pork to their districts). By tradition, however, Louisiana’s governor is even stronger. As long as anyone can remember, the governor has ordained the House speaker and Senate president, although no law or resolution allows it. For generations, legislative leaders have essentially served as employees of the governor. Legislators even allow the governor to select their committee chairs.
During Jindal’s eight years in office, the governor’s office accumulated even more power. Jindal extended unprecedented control over the state’s higher education boards (members are appointed by governors for staggered terms). Jindal has ruled as the de facto president of the Louisiana State University System. He fired the LSU system president. He chased off the chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus and pushed out the state’s commissioner of higher education. The members of the LSU and other key state boards and commissions now operate as vassals in the governor’s fiefdom.
As powerful as Jindal became, however, he was always more interested in running for president. Vitter, however, persuaded everyone in Louisiana that he wanted to be governor and nothing more. In fact, announcing for the office in January 2014, he declared, “This will be my last political job, elected or appointed, period.”
The remark was a dig at Jindal, but it was also a signal to legislators and others in Baton Rouge: I will be a full-time governor, deeply involved in running the state. And, I will win. So don’t cross me.
As he surely hoped, the idea of a Gov. Vitter engaged completely in the job of running Louisiana evoked a healthy amount of fear among the power elite in Baton Rouge for one addition reason: Vitter is known as one of the most ruthless and vindictive politicians in recent Louisiana history.
Famously thin-skinned and possessed of a nasty temper, Vitter often threatens and bludgeons recalcitrant politicians and reluctant supporters into submission. In the U.S. Senate, he is widely disliked by members of both parties for his quick temper and grating self-righteousness.
Vitter seems to operate by the following, unstated principle: “I’d rather have your fear and respect than your affection.” Vitter would undoubtedly dispute Albert Camus, who famously observed, “Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.”
Vitter, of course, is not the first politician to employ fear as a leadership tool. But a politician is only as fearsome as his actual power to inflict harm or extract retribution.
Now that many in Baton Rouge and beyond believe Vitter is a dead man walking, his ability to coerce political and business leaders to support him has waned, if not vanished. Last week, a former Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, endorsed Edwards, Vitter’s Democratic opponent.
“The Republican brand has been damaged by the failed leadership of Bobby Jindal in his second term,” said Dardenne, who earned 14 percent of the vote on Oct. 24. “A David Vitter governorship will further damage our brand, as I and others have pointed out during the campaign.”
Vitter’s other GOP former opponent, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, has remained out of sight since election night. Sources close to Angelle tell me he has no plans to endorse Vitter. Most political observers in Louisiana believe Angelle wants Vitter to lose and plans to challenge him for the U.S. Senate next year.
Why would two leading Republicans refuse to endorse Vitter when the votes of their supporters (combined, Angelle and Dardenne earned 32 percent of the primary vote) would easily give Vitter, and the Republican Party, the Governor’s Mansion?
The answer is simple: Vitter waged a vicious, scorched-earth campaign against Angelle and Dardenne during much of August and September. His super PAC, funded with almost a million dollars transferred from Vitter’s Senate campaign account and managed by his former communications director, savaged the two Republicans with abandon.
One spot claimed that both men supported higher taxes and favored using the money to purchase more cars for state government. The ad ended, “Dardenne and Angelle, a pair of used car salesmen.” Other spots by the same super PAC brutalized both men for various alleged misconduct.
Dardenne and Angelle returned Vitter’s fire with vehemence. “We have a stench that is getting ready to come over Louisiana, if we elect David Vitter as governor,” Angelle said in a debate a few days before the October primary. “There is a shadow that has been cast over Sen. Vitter, a shadow that if it continues, will follow Louisiana. . . . I understand a serious sin. It is now perhaps a lifestyle that we need to examine, a lifestyle that Louisiana cannot afford.”
In late August at a candidate forum in Baton Rouge, an audience member asked Dardenne how he differed from Vitter. "I have not frequented prostitution, especially not on the floor of the U.S. Congress," Dardenne replied.
Despite all the acrimony, Vitter’s attacks on his fellow Republicans accomplished their immediate goal. He made the runoff, barely, but left nothing but ill will and animosity in his wake. And except for some negative spots by the Republican Governors’ Association in the last ten days of the primary, no one ever bothered to attack Edwards, which is one reason the Democrat led the field with 40 percent of the vote on Oct. 24.
Now, with a shattered Republican Party coalition, Vitter’s path to victory is narrow and perilous. Those watching the senior senator over the past two weeks are seeing a David Vitter they’ve never known. He’s way behind in every poll. Edwards is suddenly raising gobs of cash. The Democratic Governors’ Association, which remained on the sidelines during the primary, is now enthusiastically engaged in the race.
Many of Angelle’s supporters in his important Cajun country region of south Louisiana are helping Edwards, as are backers of the more moderate Dardenne, who hails from Baton Rouge. One poll showed Edwards earning half of the Dardenne and Angelle voters (and he probably needs only 25 percent of them to win).
Vitter, meanwhile, never counted on launching his runoff effort in such a deep hole. He likely thought he would come close to tying Edwards in the primary, meaning that he would need an additional 10 to 15 points, a relatively easy feat in a deep-red Southern state like Louisiana.
And that would mean doing what he’s always done – make the race a referendum on someone else. In recent years, that someone else has always been Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Louisiana.
The problem for Vitter is that his approval rating is not much better than Obama’s. Then there is Bobby Jindal, whose tenure as governor has been a disaster. (He’s presided over a fiscal train wreck in recent years and is even less popular in his home state than the much-despised Obama.) Jindal’s travails have undermined the reputation of Republicans as sound stewards of the public till. Although Jindal and Vitter personally despise one another, many voters see them as the state GOP’s most prominent leaders. And because Vitter and Jindal have many of the same policy positions, Jindal is dragging Vitter down.
What Vitter hoped would be a referendum on Obama has become, instead, a referendum on failed Republican leadership and Vitter’s questionable character.
So far, Vitter has been unable to adapt to the new reality. He reflexively attacks Edwards in the same fashion that he assailed his Democratic challenger in 2010 and which Cassidy used to assault Landrieu in 2015. In one television spot Vitter began airing immediately after the primary, the announcer says, “Voting for Edwards is like voting to make Obama the next governor of Louisiana.”
In that racially charged spot, Vitter also suggested that Edwards supported Obama’s plan to release 6,000 federal prisoners and suggested that Edwards, if elected, would release “5,500 dangerous thugs, drug dealers, back into our neighborhoods.”
Vitter surely thought that tying his opponent to Obama would work, as it always had. The problem is that Edwards is not a garden-variety liberal Democrat. Although he is the leader of the state’s House Democratic caucus, few people in Louisiana see him an Obama proxy.
He’s never met Obama and has never served in Washington. A West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, he is not soft on crime. Instead, he is the son, grandson and brother of Louisiana sheriffs. The influential Louisiana Sheriffs Association not only endorsed Edwards, a bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic sheriffs cut a TV spot defending him against Vitter’s attacks.
Edwards is generally conservative. His record with the NRA is impeccable. A devout Catholic, he is pro-life. He opposes Common Core. Vitter calls him a tax-and-spend liberal, but Vitter has indicated that he, too, will raise taxes on Louisiana business to fix the fiscal mess Jindal is leaving behind.
With less than two weeks before the runoff, Vitter must make a move and fast. That may not be easy. The problem is not merely that his aura of invincibility is gone. It’s that when his invincibility vanished, Vitter had little or no goodwill among many prominent Republican leaders from which to draw.
It could be that Vitter’s prostitution scandal, his ill-fated association with Jindal and his fractured Republican Party aren’t his worst problems. Maybe it’s not even that he has a Democratic opponent who is generally immune from associations with Obama.
More harmful than all of that might be that David Vitter no longer has fear on his side. Put another way, he’s finally been exposed as a mere mortal – and a deeply flawed one, at that.
Vitter’s problem may be simply this: The Louisiana Republican who was once the most feared is also the most disliked. Perhaps Camus was correct, after all: “Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.”