By Robert Mann
After months of waging war against fellow Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne, U.S. Sen. David Vitter is struggling to rebuild Louisiana’s Republican-conservative coalition. His millions in attack spots aimed at two GOP opponents profoundly fractured his party, the same GOP that was so united last year in defeating Mary Landrieu.
Together, Angelle and Dardenne earned 32 percent of the vote in the Oct. 24 primary. To win the governor’s race, Edwards needs only a third (or less) of that vote. One poll now shows him doing much better than a third. In fact, he may be earning at least half of former Dardenne-Angelle voters.
Perhaps Vitter and his “independent” super PAC had no choice but to kneecap Angelle and Dardenne in the primary. Angelle, especially, posed a serious threat to the erstwhile gubernatorial frontrunner. So, Vitter took them out.
Now, with less than three weeks left to the Nov. 21 runoff, he’s paying a steep price for those attacks. Angelle and Dardenne remain firmly on the sidelines. For a week after the primary, the front page of Dardenne’s campaign website remained up and running, featuring a photo of Vitter with the word “liar” splayed across Republican candidate’s image.
Dardenne’s former campaign press secretary, Marsanne Golsby (who was also press secretary to former GOP Gov. Mike Foster), has prominently endorsed Edwards. The best news the Vitter camp could conjure was to give a job to Jay Vicknair, Dardenne’s unemployed former campaign manager.
Meanwhile, former Angelle supporters, including some former staffers and close advisors, make no secret of their disdain for Vitter. Based on what I am seeing and hearing from former top supporters of both runners up, there is no effort by the Dardenne and Angelle camps to urge their supporters to support Vitter. In fact, it’s the opposite.
In an interview last week with Tyler Bridges of the Baton Rouge Advocate, Dardenne commented on Vitter’s complaints about a tracker from the pro-Edwards American Bridge 21st Century PAC, who trails Vitter and gathers video of him at public functions. “Dardenne laughed about the video,” Bridges wrote, quoting Dardenne saying of Vitter, “He can give it out, but he can’t take it.”
Over the past week, I have spoken with dozens of Republicans who voted for Dardenne or Scott Angelle. Some of them are friends; others are people I met at several speaking engagements last week or who contacted me by email. These Republicans fall into three groups.
The first group said something like this, “I voted for Jay [or Scott], but I am never voting for that sleazeball, David Vitter. This time, I’m voting for Edwards.”
This group is resolute. Their decision seems irrevocable. They will not vote for Vitter, who they detest because of his perceived lack of character or his vicious attacks on their candidate. Whatever the reason, individuals in this group are not agonizing over their decision to support a Democrat on Nov. 21.
A second group, however, is conflicted in a way the first group is not. People in this group tell me something like this, “I voted for Scott [or Jay], but I’m not sure I can vote for a Democrat. I don’t like Vitter, but I just don’t think I can support Edwards for governor. I may not vote at all. I’m torn.”
Of course, there is a third group of Republicans. These people voted for Vitter in the primary and will vote eagerly for him in the runoff. Or, they voted for one of the other two Republicans and will not agonize over their vote for Vitter on Nov. 21.
If the polls are accurate, about half of the former Angelle and Dardenne supporters are now planning to vote for Vitter. The other half say they will vote for Edwards. If that split holds, Edwards would handily win the race.
Vitter’s campaign, however, knows that many of those former Dardenne and Angelle voters are merely leaning toward Vitter or Edwards. Their votes are still up for grabs. They can still be swayed one way or the other.
That is why Vitter is running that ugly, dishonest and racist TV spot alleging that Edwards wants to release 5,500 “thugs” from prison. He’s trying to exploit the racial animosities of some white voters, hoping to stoke their fear of violent black “thugs” streaming into their neighborhoods to rob their homes and rape their daughters.
It’s a strategy worthy of David Duke and George Wallace. And it will probably work with a certain percentage of conservative white voters who are easily swayed by racist appeals and cries of “Obama!” But Vitter needs more than the hardcore racist faction of the GOP. In fact, he probably already has that group locked up.
Perhaps blowing racist dog whistles will motivate dispirited racists to go vote, but it is difficult to see how his attack spots will make him any more attractive to former Dardenne and Angelle voters.
Consider this analogy: There’s a bully at your school who has, for months, been beating the stuffing out of your best friend during recess. Finally, the bully stops pummeling your friend and moves on. He finds another victim.
You are delighted for your friend. He is no longer being abused and victimized. But now that you see the bully abusing another person, do you feel any more charitable toward the bully? Not likely. He’s still a nasty, violent person who is abusing other people. In fact, you may now dislike him even more.
In this way, Vitter is the bully who has simply moved along to another victim in hopes of achieving playground supremacy. Because he is so disliked, it’s unlikely that a supermajority of Dardenne and Angelle voters will rally to Vitter’s side. Many of them will either vote for Edwards, or they will not vote at all.
Unless Vitter changes his tactics soon, this election is shaping up to be more a referendum on Vitter’s character than one decided by issues. Vitter should not want this to turn on questions about his temperament and his character. That said, it is difficult to imagine how, without help from a self-immolating John Bel Edwards, he and the GOP can completely rewrite the narrative of this race in three short weeks.