Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, down in the polls in his race for Louisiana governor, is struggling to explain away his 2007 prostitution scandal. A race that was once his to lose is one he’s losing badly after his Democratic opponent, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, surprised everyone by turning the race into a referendum on Vitter’s questionable character.
And a race about character is one Vitter cannot win. Worse for Vitter, he is running out of time to change the campaign’s trajectory. The election is Saturday, Nov. 21.
First, Vitter tried in a series of spots to tie Edwards to President Obama. That failed. Next, he cut a spot in which he apologized – sort of – for appearing on the phone logs of the so-called “D.C. Madam.” That didn’t move his poll numbers.
So, Vitter went to north Louisiana to record a spot with Willie Robertson, the star of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” Robertson’s willingness to appear with Vitter and forgive him made some news. It did not, however, make Vitter any more acceptable to the state’s voters. Even dragooning Vitter’s teenage son, Jack, into making a spot, in which he vouched for his dad’s decency, failed.
Despite everything Vitter has tried, the polls won’t budge. Edwards has consistently remained in the low to mid 50s in every independent statewide survey for the past two weeks. Vitter is stuck in the mid to high 30s.
That’s left Vitter with only one option before Saturday’s election: try to scare the hell out of Louisiana’s voters. Vitter’s new strategy is to stoke fear and xenophobia after Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris.
On Saturday, the day after the attacks, Vitter began making phone calls to voters with a recorded message that warned of “the potential for harm in our own backyard” because of Obama’s reported desire “to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees” into the country. “We can’t allow Obama to turn Louisiana into a dangerous refugee zone,” Vitter warned.
On Sunday, Vitter released a letter to the press that he had sent to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “As you know, New Orleans is expecting an influx of Syrian refugees, some of whom have already arrived,” Vitter wrote. “Based on all the information available to me, I have no confidence that these refugees are being fully and properly vetted to ensure they contain absolutely no terrorists elements.”
Vitter’s statement struck some observers as strange. That’s because his wife, Wendy Vitter, is general counsel for the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, the organization hosting most of the 14 Syrian refugees who have landed in Louisiana since January 2015.
Why Vitter didn’t ask his wife about those refugees was puzzling, unless one understands that Vitter’s letter was about nothing more than reviving his gubernatorial campaign by injecting terror into the state’s political bloodstream.
All week, Vitter has tried furiously to replace the voters’ disgust with his personal failings with fear and loathing of 14 Syrian refugees – and the threat of an “influx” of more.
On Sunday, he posted a petition about the issue on his campaign’s Facebook page. It screamed, “TELL OBAMA: NO SYRIAN REFUGEES IN LOUISIANA!” Next, Vitter expanded the petition to include a fundraising appeal for his campaign.
He’s now running a TV spot across the state hoping further turn up the heat and fear. “One of the Paris ISIS terrorists entered France posing as a Syrian refugee,” the announcer says as images of the aftermath in Paris flash on the screen. “Now, Obama’s sending Syrian refugees to Louisiana.”
On Tuesday, Vitter escalated his terror campaign by introducing legislation in the U.S. Senate, “To suspend the admission and resettlement of aliens seeking refugee status because of the conflict in Syria until adequate protocols are established to protect the national security of the United States.” In an email to supporters earlier in the day, Vitter wrote, “President Obama’s plan to bring 10,000 Syrians to the U.S. is outrageous and irresponsible. Who will stand up and fight for the people of Louisiana when it matters the most? The answer is clear.”
Perhaps most disturbing was Vitter’s recklessness in spreading unsubstantiated, discredited rumors on Tuesday about an alleged Syrian refugee who had been settled in Louisiana but who had reportedly gone missing.
After a Baton Rouge television reporter posted the rumors on Twitter, Vitter pounced and did his best to ensure the story terrorized the state for a few hours. On Tuesday morning, Vitter breathlessly tweeted: “Spoke w/ LA State Police. They don't know where BR Syrian refugee is except that he was headed to DC & no gov agency is in contact with him.” Shortly thereafter a Louisiana State Police official told reporters there was no threat.
The damage was done. By day’s end, Catholic Charities in Baton Rouge, the organization hosting some of the refugees, said it had begun receiving death threats.
Until the Paris attacks, Vitter had almost never mentioned the Syrian refugee crisis on the campaign trail. Perhaps it’s because his wife’s employer was welcoming refugees into Louisiana. More likely it’s because the Syrian crisis was barely on his radar screen. Despite having served on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee from 2009 through 2014, Vitter attended only one of the three hearings his committee held on the subject from 2012 through 2014.
Vitter’s desperate attempt to change the campaign’s tenor and tone is unlikely to work. It’s not that the state’s voters aren’t afraid of Syrian refugees. They undoubtedly are. It’s, rather, that virtually every leader in the state, including Edwards, is opposed to admitting more refugees into Louisiana.
Vitter would like to own this issue, but he doesn’t. Gov. Bobby Jindal has signed a legally dubious executive order banning further refugees from the state. And Edwards on Tuesday responded with a new spot, in which he pledges, like Jindal, to prevent more Syrian refugees from entering Louisiana.
More important, however, is that these last-minute gambits rarely work in Louisiana politics.
In the fall of 2014, trailing badly in her re-election bid, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu tried to push legislation through the U.S. Senate to authorize the controversial Keystone pipeline. At the time, a prominent supporter of then-U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, who eventually defeated Landrieu, observed correctly that it was “obvious” Landrieu’s last-minute legislative move was “a political stunt.”
That astute observer: Sen. David Vitter.