La. Senate challenger says Vitter weakened

Former Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor (R) says his last-minute decision to enter the Republican Senate race on Friday was prompted by widespread discontent in the GOP with incumbent Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

“A lot of people that I talk to are just dissatisfied [with Vitter] when they can’t even get a phone call returned, so it’s across the board. It’s not just any one thing,” Traylor told The Hill on Tuesday.

Vitter’s tenure in the Senate has been marred by personal scandals. Most recently, it came to light that a longtime Vitter aide, Brent Furer, worked for the senator despite a lengthy rap sheet that included arrests for cocaine possession and drunken driving. Furer was also arrested for allegedly assaulting a female friend with a knife and threatening to kill her. He later pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

“I wouldn’t say that [scandal] was the last straw, but that’s just one more of many,” Traylor said.

Traylor, a former state trooper who left the state Supreme Court in 2009, said he’s concerned Vitter would lose in the general election to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Charlie Melancon.

“I think he’s been weakened so badly that, if we’re not careful, we’re going to lose this seat to a Democrat, and I don’t want that to happen,” Traylor said. “I want Louisiana to have a conservative Republican senator.”

Traylor was a last-minute entrant into the race, registering just ahead of the filing deadline on Friday. He said he considered launching a campaign at this time last year, but decided against it after his wife, Peggy, died in August.

“I just kind of lost interest in everything,” he said. “As time went on, people started calling again and I just thought it over and decided to make the race.”

Traylor will have to scramble to overcome Vitter’s money advantage. Vitter recently announced he has $5.5 million cash on hand for his campaign.

“I think we’re going to get enough [campaign money] to do what we need to do,” Traylor said. “I think the people already know what’s going on.”

Republicans wanted an alternative to Vitter, he added.

“That’s why I’m in the race. I wouldn’t be in the race if they hadn’t told me exactly that.”

Traylor said Vitter hasn’t been able to deliver for the state.

“In order to get anything done anywhere, I don’t care if it’s the United States Senate or the parish police jury, you have to be able to get along with people. You have to at least be courteous and return phone calls, just be nice,” he said. “You can’t get on an airplane and scream, ‘Do you know who I am?’ ”

In response to Traylor’s remarks, Vitter’s campaign issued a statement that focused on his opposition to the “radical Obama agenda.”

“I’ll continue my fight to protect Louisiana’s marshes from the oil spill, lift the job-killing moratorium, stop the radical Obama agenda and offer a positive conservative alternative,” Vitter said. “In contrast, Charlie Melancon, who endorsed Obama for president recently graded his job performance an ‘A.’ ”

Observers said Traylor’s candidacy could be a legitimate threat to Vitter’s reelection chances.

“I think he could be a formidable candidate; he’s got a good story and he’s a very personable guy and he’s just as conservative as Vitter,” said John Maginnis, editor of the nonpartisan LaPolitics newsletter. “It’s just a matter of whether he can raise the money.”

Maginnis noted that independents and Democrats can’t vote in the state’s closed GOP primary.

“The rules work in [Vitter’s] favor,” he said. “It’s going to have to go just right for Traylor.”

If Vitter has a problem, he added, “it’s conservatives being turned off and just not voting.”

Meanwhile, at least one prominent Republican is staying out of the primary — for now. A spokesman for Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said he’s not focused on the race while oil continues to spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

“There will be time to discuss endorsements in the coming months,” Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin said in an e-mail.

Jindal has appeared at Vitter fundraisers but has not made a public endorsement.

The Louisiana Republican Party, however, has been “very actively supporting” Vitter, according to spokesman Aaron Baer. “We’re going to continue to do that.”

Washington Republicans are also standing by Vitter.

“We fully support Sen. Vitter,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “His numbers have only grown stronger as the election cycle has gone on.”