By Robert Mann
It’s been an article of faith for almost two years in Louisiana that U.S. Sen. David Vitter would become the state’s next governor. Politicians and political observers here (this writer included) resigned themselves to the idea that the senior Republican senator would almost certainly succeed two-term Gov. Bobby Jindal, who steps down in January. Vitter aggressively leveraged that assumption to raise more than $10 million for his campaign and a supportive super PAC, which only added to the faith about his inevitability.
That Vitter would again loom so large in Louisiana politics would have been a ridiculous suggestion eight years ago, in the summer of 2007, when a prostitution scandal nearly ruined his career. Vitter apologized for his “serious sin.” Afterward, he focused on his Senate work and labored to redeem himself with constituents. His rehabilitation seemed complete in 2010 when he faced re-election and dispatched his Democratic opponent in a landslide.
Last year, Vitter began flexing his renewed political muscles. He prominently backed then-U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy against the state’s three-term Democratic U.S. senator, Mary Landrieu. Cassidy was a flawed candidate, but he had Vitter’s strong support and his former communications director running his campaign. Cassidy beat Landrieu handily in an election that became a referendum on President Obama. With Vitter’s help, Cassidy had vanquished the only remaining Democrat to hold statewide office in Louisiana.
Invigorated, Vitter began 2015 as the early favorite to replace Jindal, despite eventually drawing two prominent Republican opponents and a little-known Democratic challenger.
Then, a strange thing happened on Vitter’s stroll to the Louisiana governor’s mansion. In the state’s Oct. 24 primary (candidates of all parties run in a so-called “open primary”), Vitter nearly missed the Nov. 21 runoff election. He earned only 23 percent of the vote, trailing his lone Democratic opponent, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, by 17 points.
Vitter has been reeling like a punch-drunk boxer for more than two weeks. He is far behind Edwards in every poll released since the primary and now faces new, potentially fatal allegations regarding his connection to a Washington, D.C., prostitution service.
Last Friday, Edwards released an explosive new spot alleging that Vitter missed a Feb. 27, 2001, U.S. House vote honoring slain American soldiers while he waited on a phone call from a prostitute. It was the first time anyone had credibly suggested that Vitter’s prostitution habit in the late 1990s and early 2000s had influenced the performance of his public duties.
Some observers have questioned the wisdom of a strident, negative attack from Edwards, who appears to be sitting on a comfortable lead. The Edwards campaign, however, surely noted events last week in Kentucky. Republican Matt Bevin shocked the political world and handily won that state’s governorship, despite ample polling that showed him trailing his Democratic opponent.
Not content to sit on his lead, Edwards went for Vitter’s throat. The spot says Vitter “answered a prostitute’s call minutes after he skipped a vote honoring 28 soldiers, who gave their lives in defense of our freedoms. David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots.” One Edwards’ intimate told me he regarded the commercial as “a kill shot.”
This time last year, Vitter surely would not have imagined he would now be fighting for his political life. It’s not only that his once-certain election as governor is in jeopardy. The stakes are even higher. If he loses this race, a bevy of potential Republican challengers will pounce, eager to finish him off in November 2016, when he would face re-election to the U.S. Senate. If Vitter loses next week, there will be blood in Louisiana’s political waters. He could lose everything.
Overall, it’s a stunning reversal for Vitter and the Louisiana Republican Party.
For the past two years, however, Vitter’s erstwhile aura of inevitability – combined with his history of invincibility (he has never lost an election) – had made for a powerful and intoxicating brew. And Vitter and his supporters imbibed generously. That potent brew also gave Vitter one additional advantage to draw supporters to his side: fear.
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