By Robert Mann
Is U.S. Sen. David Vitter a viable candidate for governor of Louisiana? Of course, he is. Is he the odds-on favorite to win the race in 2015, now that he’s formally announced his candidacy? Too soon to tell.
Here are some initial questions (there certainly are more), the answers to which will determine if Vitter is successful in his quest for the Governor’s Mansion:
1. Who will run against Vitter and how strong will they be? Remember how then Sen. Hillary Clinton was a lock to win the Democratic nomination for president in 2008? Remember how a freshman senator named Barack Obama captured the nomination that was supposedly hers for the taking? Vitter is a talented politician, but he is also now the frontrunner. All the other candidates will be taking shots at him. If I were Vitter, I’d rather be a slight underdog. It makes you hungrier and the election is less likely to be a referendum on you.
Vitter is the leading candidate in the current field — which now amounts to Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and state Rep. John Bel Edwards — but that field will grow, and that will tell us much about Vitter’s long-term viability.
2. Vitter is most effective when he’s on the attack. Who will he attack in his quest for governor? It will be difficult to run against President Obama as successfully as Vitter did during his 2010 re-election. Obama is a lame duck and, by the fall of 2015, will be less a factor in state and national politics.
What about Gov. Bobby Jindal? There’s no love lost between Vitter and Jindal. Vitter, in fact, has spent much of the past six years needling Jindal. But, like Obama, Jindal is also a lame duck. Besides, attacks on Jindal would only split the Republican Party at a time when Vitter will need to bring Republicans together. Make no mistake, Vitter will go on the attack. It’s what he does, but who he chooses to run against and how he does it will make a big difference.
3. How will Vitter run as the anti-Jindal? No one will win the governorship in 2015 — not even a Republican – by promising to continue Jindal’s policies. Jindal’s strong popularly has vanished and it’s not likely it will ever rebound to the ratings he enjoyed in his first term. The leading Democratic candidate thus far, Edwards, will campaign openly as a break from Jindal’s “failed” policies. Vitter will, too. But how he does it will be interesting to watch.
Vitter has already taken a veiled shot at Jindal in his announcement: “This will be my last political job, elected or appointed, period,” Vitter said, clearly signalling that, unlike Jindal, he won’t be using the office to run for president. “So my only agenda will be to do what’s best for all Louisianians, from our best and brightest to our most vulnerable.”
That’s a deft slap at Jindal. It may work.
3. Who will Jindal endorse? Jindal may be unpopular with the electorate, at large, but he still has decent approval numbers among Republicans. Vitter certainly won’t want him campaigning for Dardenne or Treasurer John Kennedy (not likely, as neither of those two officials are close to Jindal), but Vitter may not want him openly supporting his own candidacy, either.
Perhaps Jindal will find someone else to back, like Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle. But the delicate dance around Jindal will be fascinating to watch.
Jindal, of course, will have a perfect excuse to stay out of the race: he’ll be busy running for president in the fall of 2015 and could legitimately say he has little time for or interest in picking his successor.
4. Who will be Vitter’s most prominent Democratic opponent? So far, Edwards is the top Democrat in the race, and he may prove formidable, but many Democrats are hoping that a bigger name enters the field. That would be New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The mayor, of course, has his hands full in re-election battle. If Landrieu wins re-election — and by how much — it might have much to do with whether he casts his eyes on the governor’s race. Win or lose, Landrieu is worth watching for now.
Should Landrieu’s sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, lose her re-election bid this year, she might decide to run, especially if she loses in a close race. Other than winning re-election, nothing would please Mary Landrieu more than beating David Vitter in a head-up race. Such a match up is a long, long shot, but wouldn’t that be a fun race to watch?
5. Who will be Vitter’s main Republican opponent? Vitter would likely do best in a run-off with a Democrat like Edwards or Landrieu (Mitch or Mary). I don’t think he wants to be in a runoff with a more moderate Republican, like Dardenne. In a runoff with two Republicans, Democrats will become the swing voters and the advantage would likely go to someone like Dardenne. For that reason, Vitter may well choose to wage war on Dardenne early, hoping to wound him enough to ensure a runoff with a Democrat.
Vitter and Kennedy have worked together in the past. Will they cut a deal, as some have suggested, that would keep Kennedy out of the race in return for Gov. Vitter appointing Kennedy to his vacant U.S. Senate seat? It’s in Vitter’s interests to have as few Republicans as possible running (that’s why he’s announced so early). Would Kennedy make such a deal? It might earn him a Senate seat, but could he keep it if voters believe that he sold his endorsement for it?
6. Will Vitter be attacked over his prostitution scandal and what impact will it have, more than seven years after the fact? The answer to the first part of this question is, clearly, yes. Democrats realize they made an awful mistake in 2010 when they failed to attack Vitter over his prostitution scandal. They won’t let that happen again and now, with the profusion of independent groups out there, Edwards and/or Landrieu won’t have to attack Vitter directly. They’ll have surrogates for that. But Vitter, who has never answered specific questions about the scandal, won’t get off untouched this time.
The big question is: will those attacks matter to voters? All this exploded in 2007. It’s old news. But Democrats will be banking on the hope that voters have higher standards for the conduct of their governor than their U.S. senator. There’s not much evidence to suggest that’s true, but Vitter’s opposition (including his Republican opponents) will certainly give it a try.
What will likely decide this race is what else Democrats have on Vitter and how they use it. This may not be the best time for a veteran DC politician to be running for statewide office. You can bet Democrats will say that Vitter wants to import Washington values (i.e., partisan, dysfunctional politics) to Louisiana.
Saying that Vitter has prostituted himself to right-wing special interests may be more effective than attacking Vitter on his relationship with the DC Madam.
Clearly, because of his name recognition, his prominence, his political skills and his ability to raise money, Vitter is today the leading candidate for governor in 2015. The answers to the questions above will determine if he holds that position.