Louisiana primary’s ugly race

Louisiana primary’s ugly race
© Greg Nash

Republican Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterBiden inaugural committee to refund former senator's donation due to foreign agent status Bottom line Lysol, Charmin keep new consumer brand group lobbyist busy during pandemic MORE’s slim margin to win the second spot in last week’s Louisiana gubernatorial primary has sparked questions about whether he’ll be able to win after once holding favorite-son status. 

The longtime legislator in the ruby-red state has high name recognition, and many expected him to be a shoo-in for the governor’s mansion. But the primary turned ugly, and he won a spot in the general election by less than 4 percentage points.

ADVERTISEMENT

Hot on the heels of the controversy surrounding Vitter, three national political ratings groups altered predictions on the race. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics changed its rating from “Safe Republican” to “Likely Republican”; The Cook Political Report now views the race as a “Toss Up”; and The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report moved its rating from “Republican Favored” to “Leans Republican.”

“Coming out of the campaign, he’s bruised and battered,” Louisiana-based pollster Bernie Pinsonat said.

“The whole thing was blown up by the Republicans. … It depends. If Vitter can put the Republicans back together, it depends on the hard feelings.”

Louisiana has a nonpartisan “jungle primary” in which the top two candidates move on to a general election. But instead of engaging with Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, the Republican field — including Vitter, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne — turned on Vitter.

Candidates jumped on the claim by a local blogger that Vitter had fathered a child with a prostitute — an accusation that gained momentum because of Vitter’s connection to the “D.C. Madam” prostitution scandal that broke almost a decade ago. 

Vitter’s challengers regularly questioned Vitter’s character on the trail, with Dardenne calling his conduct a “stain on Louisiana” and Angelle saying, “We have a stench that is getting ready to come over Louisiana if we elect David Vitter as governor,” according to Baton Rouge’s The Advocate.    

And on the last day before the election, both Dardenne and Angelle bashed Vitter over the accusations that a private investigator connected to his campaign was arrested while spying on the senator’s political opponents.

In the end, Edwards drew 40 percent of the vote, while Vitter took second with 23 percent, followed by Angelle with 19 percent and Dardenne with 15.

The divisive dynamic in the race is not likely to go away, according to University of New Orleans political science professor Edward Chervenak.

“Certainly some of the outside groups will continue to focus on the issues as a proxy for Vitter’s character,” Chervenak said. “I think a lot of the opposition is going to make it about character.”

That’s been clear from even the opening salvos of the general election.

Edwards’s first ad slams Vitter and tells voters that he “will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do,” while a new ad from the anti-Vitter Gumbo PAC recycles Dardenne and Angelle’s attacks.

Edwards hasn’t had to face a wave of negative attacks, since the GOP candidates largely stayed focused on themselves, so his campaign will likely be tested by an onslaught of ads.

Both Pinsonat and Chervenak agree that while the tides have shifted back toward the center, the dynamics of the race still favor Vitter.

He’ll likely hold the money advantage, with the support of most business leaders, and his campaign announced that it raised $1 million in the day following the primary election.

Edwards’s campaign hasn’t released fundraising figures, but his representative told The Hill that it has “more than enough commitments and cash on hand to remain competitive, regardless of whether David Vitter’s claims are true.”

But Democrats are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the electorate — Pelican Staters voted out the party’s last statewide Democratic office holder, Sen. Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuCassidy wins reelection in Louisiana Bottom line A decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth MORE, by a 14-point margin last year.

The key for Republicans in that race will likely be the key for them again — keeping the focus on national politics. The GOP toppled Landrieu by linking her to President Obama, who had and still has a low approval rating in the state. 

This time, the Republican Governors Association and Vitter have both put out ads in the opening days that sought to peg Edwards to Obama on issues such as raising taxes, supporting benefits for undocumented immigrants and cutting some prison sentences.

“I think people in the state are going to see the clear contrast,” said Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar, noting that Edwards has just a 25 percent rating from a Louisiana business group.

“He’s not just a casual supporter of Obama; he’s a true believer.”

Mary-Patricia Wray, Edwards’s spokeswoman, emphasized the Democrat’s centrist leanings — he regularly touts his military record, as well as his pro-life and moderate gun stances, while on the trail. And she believes Louisianans are tired of the paralysis that comes from partisanship.

“We’ve got a governor who is incredibly unpopular in Louisiana, our president is incredibly unpopular in Louisiana and they are from two separate parties,” she said.

“We strongly believe that the center of the electorate is not going to reflexively vote party.”

Both candidates have their work cut out for them as far as the electorate goes. Vitter has to woo Republicans and make sure they fall in line on Election Day instead of sitting on their hands out of protest.

“He’s got to convince them that despite some of his baggage, it’s important for Republicans to maintain political control of the state,” Pinsonat said.

And Edwards has to maximize turnout among African-American voters who lean Democrat, Pinsonat adds, as well as win a critical mass of white voters, which he estimates is about 30 percent. 

Almost 80 percent of white voters supported a Republican candidate in the 2014 primary election, and while the general electorate will be different, the victory likely hinges on whether Edwards can overcome those demographics. 

“There’s nobody that thinks that John Bel Edwards is going to win by 10 points. The state isn’t going to change like that,” Pinsonat said.