Politics & Policy

Trailing Badly and Running Out of Time, Vitter Goes on Offense in Louisiana

Sen. David Vitter (R., La.) on Capitol Hill in January 2014 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Baton Rouge, Louisiana — With a loud crunch, the SUV carrying Senator David Vitter and his wife, Wendy, backed into the sedan his staffer was driving.

Both cars hastily pulled back into their opposite parking spaces in the lot of the Bayou Church in Lafayette, and everyone got out to survey the scene. Vitter looked first at the dent in the back of the SUV he had been in, and then he walked over to survey the damage done to his staffer’s car. When it was clear all were unscathed, everyone got back in their cars and went on their way.

As a metaphor, a car crash seems almost too on the nose for Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign. Once seen as the inevitable next governor of Louisiana, Vitter now finds himself in an unenviable position: As the clock ticks down to election day, the race has come to focus on an issue he’d prefer to avoid — the 2007 prostitution scandal he thought he’d moved past — and polls peg him as a clear underdog.

It was scarcely a year ago that reporters were writing the obituary for Louisiana Democrats, as then-senator Mary Landrieu hurtled toward certain defeat to Republican Bill Cassidy in her bid for a fourth term as U.S. senator. Yet with just four days until the run-off election that will choose the Pelican State’s next governor, a previously little-known Democratic state senator named John Bel Edwards now looks poised to hand Democrats an unforeseen victory.

Public polling over the past week consistently finds Edwards leading Vitter. A poll conducted Saturday through Monday by Louisiana-based JMC Analytics found Edwards with 51 percent, Vitter with 35 percent, and 13 percent undecided. Fifty-four percent of those undecided voters said they were leaning toward Edwards. Early voting numbers do not paint an attractive picture for him, either. Democrats turned out in higher numbers than they did during early voting in the primary, and there was higher turnout of black voters — who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats in Louisiana.

“That, to me, suggests that the Democrats are going to be very enthusiastic about voting next Saturday,” says John Couvilon, who runs JMC Analytics.

To be sure, many Louisiana operatives expect an election day result much tighter than the polling shows. In an off-year runoff election, it can be hard to predict just who exactly will turn out to vote. What’s more, the past year is rife with examples of polling gone wrong — most recently, in the Kentucky governor’s race, when Republican Matt Bevin coasted to victory after polls showed the Democrat with an edge in a tight race.  Still, Republicans who spoke to NR were not optimistic, on the whole. Though many predict the final tally on Election Night will be closer than polls predict, few seem inclined to bet on Vitter.  Several, asked if Vitter has a chance, describe the race as simply “over.”

Vitter was the clear frontrunner from the start of the race, and as the result, he was the victim of attacks from all sides. There were three other credible Republican candidates in the primary, plus Edwards on the Democratic side. In Louisiana’s jungle primaries, all candidates from any party compete in one big election. If no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote, the race goes to a runoff between the top two candidates. With multiple Republicans in the race, that meant Edwards would almost certainly have a spot in the runoff, and the trick for the Republicans was to make sure they were the ones in second place. Vitter, the most well-funded candidate, was the guy to beat, and other Republicans, plus their super PACs, trained their sights on him. The barrage of negative attacks left Vitter wounded coming out of the primary, with just a month to recover.

With four days left, there is little Vitter can do to change voters’ minds, and he seems well aware of this. His best chance at proving the polls wrong is to make sure Republicans turn out in force — and that they turn out to vote for him.

Edwards has managed to peel away some Republican votes from Vitter. The West Point graduate has aggressively touted his conservative credentials — particularly, his pro-life position, a major selling point in Louisiana. That has helped him find an opening that was never there for Landrieu, and it also has helped him woo moderates who might otherwise fall into the Republican column. As a result, Vitter spent the weekend bashing Edwards as a conservative in rhetoric only, insisting that Edwards’s record does not back up his rhetoric.

But that also means Vitter cannot afford for Republicans to stay home on Saturday. That was the overarching message at Vitter’s campaign events on Saturday, the last day for Louisianans to vote early in the run-off: Go vote, and take your friends.

“At this point, the debate is pretty much over,” he told supporters, who had gathered in a conference room at the Clarion Inn in Gonzales to watch Louisiana State University get clobbered by the University of Arkansas on Saturday evening. “At this point, it’s all about who shows up. That’s what it’s about.”

One issue could be a wildcard in the final weeks: the recent terrorist attacks in Paris that left more than 100 people dead. Vitter has aggressively jumped on the issue of Syrian refugees in the wake of attack, promising that, as governor, he would sign an executive order to prohibit Syrian refugees from settling in Louisiana. It’s a step proposed by a number of Republican governors. He began running an ad using footage from the soccer game in Paris where a bomb went off last week. And he’s repeatedly attacked Edwards as soft on the issue, accusing him of changing his position several times since the Paris attacks.

“That is a crucial issue, in many ways a life-and-death security issue for the people of Louisiana,” Vitter told reporters after the debate. “What happened in Paris is sure as heck relevant, because we know at least one of those terrorists got into Paris as a Syrian refugee.”

It’s a “very emotional issue” that could help sway some voters back into Vitter’s camp, says JMC Analytics’ Couvilon. Issues of national security and public safety have tended to boost Republicans in past elections; in 2014, concerns over the rise of ISIS contributed to some Republican Senate victories.

But with just four days to go and early voting already finished, there are fewer voters left to sway.

But Vitter’s campaigning style suggests he has little expectation of changing minds or winning over new voters. He is not a particularly charismatic candidate, and he seems ill at ease in retail-politicking scenarios. The Bayou Church’s chili and gumbo cook-off, where about 20 teams have set up booths to dish out the goods and compete for the glory, should be a candidate’s dream event: no shortage of voters to talk to, and great photo ops of the candidate tasting the goods and oohing and aahing over who has the best gumbo.

But there are only two reporters there to take photos because the campaign did not publicly announce the event. And there are few photo opportunities, because Vitter eats almost nothing. He tastes a couple of bites of gumbo at the first booth, run by the local police department, but the small Styrofoam bowl vanishes almost as soon as he walks away, and he does not eat anything else. His wife, Wendy, does the heavy lifting on that front, tasting multiple chilis in pursuit of the spiciest one. (She eschews gumbo because she loves chili and finds the prospect of alternating between the two unappetizing.)

He seems reluctant to engage on policy issues with cook-off attendees, even with those who declare themselves undecided voters.

As Vitter wanders around the event, dressed in checked dress pants and a white button-down shirt and trailed by half a dozen staffers in Vitter-campaign T-shirts, he rarely approaches people. Mostly, he talks with those who seek him out and introduce themselves; supporters take the initiative and introduce him to others. For a brief stretch toward the end of his visit, when no voter presented himself, Vitter and his wife stood in the middle of the lawn, gazing around aimlessly.

He seems reluctant to engage on policy issues with cook-off attendees, even with those who declare themselves undecided voters. “Go to David Vitter dotcom,” he urges voter after voter, when they ask for his plan on a specific issue. The details, he says, are all online.

There are varying theories about just why Vitter’s fortunes have shifted. Some point to Edwards’s social conservatism. Others say that the unpopularity of Bobby Jindal, the current Republican governor, is dragging Vitter down. Still others say it is simply Vitter himself who has turned off voters: Some people just don’t like the man.    

Edwards has resurrected an issue that Vitter thought he had moved past: In 2007, the senator’s telephone number was disclosed as part of the records of the D.C. Madam, Deborah Jean Palfrey, who was charged with running a prostitution ring. Vitter confessed to “a serious sin” but declined to elaborate, he said, out of respect for his family. Three years later, he won reelection in a wave year with 57 percent of the vote, and the matter appeared to be closed.

But the prostitution scandal became a central issue in the gubernatorial campaign last week, when Edwards began running an ad alleging that Vitter “chose prostitutes over patriots.” The ad relies on the D.C. Madam’s phone records, which show Vitter answering a call from her service shortly after he missed a vote to honor soldiers. 

The renewed focus on the scandal has caused some problems for Vitter. The moderators of the debate Monday night showed the results of a poll they conducted that found 55 percent of people saying they would be less likely to vote for Vitter because of the prostitution scandal. And a survey conducted during the primary by a super PAC involved in the race found that voters had negative associations with the senator. The answers to the free-association survey question, provided to National Review, asked voters to name their “greatest hesitancy about voting for David Vitter for governor.” The words used most often: “morals,” “personal life,” “untrustworthy,” “past,” “prostitutes,” “scandals,” “bad,” “values.”

Last week, Vitter’s campaign began running an ad in which he acknowledges the scandal, and over the course of the week, he has touted endorsements from “family values” conservatives such as Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins. At Monday’s debate, he devoted his closing statement to talking about the scandal:

Fifteen years ago, I faced my darkest day in life when I had to look my kids in the eye and tell them how badly I’d failed my family. What they gave me in return was the best day of my life, when they and Wendy offered complete love and forgiveness. And that was absolutely the single best day of my life, and the most powerful motivator I had for the rest of my life. I’ve used that every day since then to do right by them first and foremost, and also to work hard to recommit to the people of Louisiana.

Openly acknowledging his mistake, with the prostitution scandal, has made Vitter fans of some voters.

Asked afterward why he had chosen to focus his closing statement on that, he insisted it had nothing to do with the current political discussion.

“That is the most important experience of my life, earning that redemption,” he told reporters. “That is the single defining moment of my life that makes me who I am today, and brings strength to my character.”

Openly acknowledging his mistake has made fans of some voters.

“It takes a man to stand up and admit, ‘I made a mistake’ — I appreciate that; that’s why he’s got my vote,” Christopher Catfish Mallang, a bounty hunter from Lafayette attending the cook-off with his wife and daughter, tells NR. (Catfish is really part of his name — he pulls out his driver’s license to prove it.)

“We’ve all made mistakes,” he adds. “You can’t hold a man back for the rest of his life because of one mistake.”

Vitter’s campaign attributes his underdog status to the attacks on him in the primary, when he drew fire from all sides as the clear front-runner.

“The primary was a bruising primary, and the dynamics were that there were eight people and entities with all their guns focused on me,” he tells NR at an early-voting rally in Livingston on Saturday.

The other factor he points to: Jindal, whose 27 percent approval rating, Vitter says, is dragging him down. “People are frustrated, myself included, that he’s been completely AWOL for the last three years. And I’m going to provide the strong, hands-on, active leadership that people want.”

Democrats are more than happy to tie Vitter to the unpopular Jindal, whose presidential bid has often taken him out of the state.

“I think it’s actually more that Jindal and his incompetence are just trickling down to the Republican candidates,” representative Cedric Richmond tells NR. Richmond, who represents the New Orleans area, is the sole remaining Democrat in Louisiana’s congressional delegation. “So if you add who John Bel is, and then you throw in Jindal, it becomes the perfect storm.”

 Vitter and Jindal openly cannot stand each other. Neither seems able to hide his deep-seated disdain for the other, and Jindal declined to endorse Vitter in the run-off. Not that Vitter would have wanted his endorsement anyway; he is the first to point out that he has “butted heads” with the current governor.

Not all Republicans are ready to count Vitter out. The campaign has made notable shifts in the final days, in an effort to change course. Local reporters say the campaign’s occasional release of a public schedule is new — previously Vitter’s campaign did not release that. Vitter has shifted his message to address the prostitution scandal head-on, while simultaneously accusing Edwards of using the issue to distract from his record. Vitter has even alluded to impropriety on Edwards’s part, repeatedly noting that Edwards attended an event at what Vitter calls “an adult hip-hop night club” on the same day he missed a forum with a family-values group.

— Alexis Levinson is senior political reporter at National Review.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.

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