By Robert Mann
Whether he wins or loses the Nov. 21 runoff for governor, it was never supposed to be this difficult for Sen. David Vitter.
He had the money. Between his campaign account and his super PAC, he raised more cash than his three major competitors combined. He had the stature and name recognition that comes with being a two-term United States senator. He appeared to have put his 2007 prostitution scandal behind him, as evidenced by his runaway reelection in 2010. He was running in a ruby red state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2008. Until a few months ago, he was leading in the polls.
All he needed was the right person in the runoff and victory seemed assured. That’s certainly what I believed back in May when I wrote that if Vitter’s opponents wanted to deny him the Governor’s Mansion, they should not vote for Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, but rather for one of his GOP opponents – Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne or Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle.
Then something unexpected happened on Vitter’s march to the Governor’s Office. On Oct. 24, he came perilously close to missing the runoff, earning a weak 23 percent of the vote to Edwards’ 40 percent. Vitter staggered, not charged, into the next round. In several polls released over the past 10 days, he is stuck in the 30s, while Edwards sits in the low 50s.
A race that was Vitter’s to lose now appears to be a race Vitter is losing. So, what happened?
The Jindal-GOP brand is toxic. Vitter and Gov. Bobby Jindal are mortal enemies, but most people know little about their mutual disdain. Jindal’s profound unpopularity – he’s even less admired in Louisiana than President Barack Obama – is an onerous burden for Vitter to lug into the runoff. It’s hurting him among voters hesitant to award the job to someone whose policy positions are almost identical to Jindal’s.
Voters are disgusted with Washington insiders. Perhaps just as damaging to Vitter as lingering questions about his 2007 prostitution scandal is his long affiliation with Washington/congressional dysfunction. Conservative voters hate D.C. insiders with a red-hot fury, which is one reason Ben Carson and Donald Trump are the GOP presidential frontrunners.
Attacks on Edwards as an Obama clone aren’t sticking. Vitter has always made elections about someone or something else. As he did in 2010, Vitter wants this race to be a choice between him and Obama. So far, trying to link Edwards to Obama isn’t working – and his racially charged attacks may only energize the black vote for Edwards.
The election is becoming a referendum on Vitter. Vitter’s best bet is to make this race turn on ideology (even though he and Edwards share many positions, especially on social issues). Instead, the race is becoming a referendum on Vitter’s personality and character. That often happens with a well-known incumbent. However, Vitter cannot afford for the race to be about his personality or character defects.
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