Democrat John Bel Edwards is on track to clobber Republican Sen. David Vitter in the race for Louisiana governor Saturday. The likely victory spells trouble for Vitter and for Pelican State Republicans.
Edwards holds a 22-percent lead in a poll of likely voters released last week by the University of New Orleans.
Vitter's fading gubernatorial hopes mark a steep decline for the senator, who early in the 21st century was a rising political star. The potential loss of the executive branch is also a stunning blow to Louisiana Republicans, who seemed unstoppable after Bill Cassidy's defeat of three-term Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu last fall.
The race has also split state Republicans among themselves. Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne crossed party lines to support Edwards.
“I feel like John Bel’s the candidate in this race who has the integrity and the best interest of Louisiana at heart and has the best ability to try to bring the state together,” Dardenne told AMI Newswire Friday.
Political analysts point to a number of factors influencing the race, including the recent bubbling up of Vitter’s years-old prostitution scandal, Edwards’ bipartisan support, voter dissatisfaction with Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and a scandal in which a Vitter opponent was the target of eavesdropping.
Perhaps the hardest hit to Vitter has been Edwards' "prostitutes/patriots" TV ads highlighting his own military service and Vitter's past scandals.
“John Bel Edwards, [who] answered our country’s call and served as a ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division,” the ad asks, “or David Vitter, who answered a prostitute’s call minutes after he skipped a vote honoring 28 soldiers who gave their lives in defense of our freedom? David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots.”
But even before Vitter and Edwards emerged as the top two in an October primary, the ground was softened up for a return of a scandal that had been quiet for many years.
After he was revealed to have been on the call list of late "D.C. Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey in 2007, Vitter held a press conference with his wife at his side. He apologized for “actions from my past” but did not address widely circulated reports about his unsavory behavior. Nevertheless, the scandal appeared to have passed, and Vitter successfully defended his Senate seat in 2010.
Early in October, Wendy Ellis -- who, in interviews using another name, has long held that Vitter was one of her clients -- gave an interview with a local blogger claiming the politically pro-life senator impregnated her and urged her to get an abortion.
Ellis' credibility has been widely questioned and the child has not surfaced, but the candidate ended up back in the mud, especially after a private detective working for Vitter was revealed to have recorded a meeting between Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and other officials. Normand had backed one of Vitter's GOP rivals in the primary.
Vitter has scrambled to contain the damage. In a brand new television advertisement titled “Difficult Times,” he appears with his wife and children. “Fifteen years ago, I failed my family,” Vitter says.
“The interesting thing about this ad is that it’s the most he’s ever said about it, without actually saying anything about it,” Jennifer Duffy, who has followed this race for the Cook Political Report, told AMI Newswire. “The fact that they had to run the ad at all says that [the scandal i hurting him, which is interesting because he’s been on the ballot since 2007 without a problem.”
Duffy said that while Edwards is riding high in the polls, he needs to court the white female vote.
“Maybe some of them will vote for Edwards, though the more likely occurrence is that they stay home,” Duffy said. “If they come out in large numbers for Edwards, Edwards wins big. If most of them stay home, it could be a much closer race.”
According to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office, early voting numbers have been strong, with 168,395 votes returned by Friday Nov 13. Democrats have outvoted Republicans by nearly 30,000 votes. More than 21,000 votes were unaffiliated with either party.
“According to the data we’re hearing, Edwards is where he needs to be,” Duffy said.
Dardenne, the lieutenant governor, told AMI Newswire he didn’t ask Edwards for anything and wasn’t offered anything for his support. He said his endorsement was simply what he thought was right for the state.
“I think he’s got a very realistic chance at winning. I think only what I would consider to be a moderate Democrat like John Bel would have a chance in Louisiana,” Dardenne said. “I believe he’s unusual in the sense that he’s pro-life and he’s pro-gun and that makes him palatable to a lot of independent and conservative voters of Louisiana.”
Duffy predicted Dardenne would pay for that endorsement, even though many Republicans are reportedly disenchanted with Vitter. “I don’t doubt Dardenne’s motives, but this will come at a cost to him,” Duffy said.
University of New Orleans political science professor Edward Chervenak, on the other hand, noted that Vitter has burned many bridges with his fellow Republicans.
“They were happy to support him as long as he was in Washington, D.C., but now that he wants to be governor of the state it seems that they’re changing their tune,” Chervenak told AMI Newswire.
Edwards also got a boost from a very strong performance in Tuesday’s debate. The candidates answered questions about education, health care and the state budget while taking every opportunity to tie one another to either Jindal or President Barack Obama -- and sometimes to both.
“I've publicly fought and butted heads with Bobby Jindal on many important issues. In contrast, when have you disagreed with your party leader, Barack Obama?" Vitter asked at the debate.
"I've stood up to the president on the (drilling) moratorium," replied Edwards, who has served since 2008 as a state representative. "If you believe Obama is the biggest threat to Louisiana, you should stay in Washington to oppose him."
Although Republicans still hold a 26-13 majority in the state senate and a 59-44 majority in the state house, the GOP has reason to worry about Jindal's role in the race.
The governor is currently sitting on a 70-percent disapproval rating in the Sportsman's Paradise, according to the University of New Orleans poll. More than half of likely voters polled said they think the state’s economy has gotten worse in the past year.
“They’re unhappy with the direction of the state and they’re unhappy with the policies that the Jindal administration has pursued,” Chervenak told AMI Newswire. “They may be looking for change, and that’s why we’re seeing John Bel Edwards doing so well in the polls.”
Jindal, who has been spending time on his own campaign for the U.S. presidency, has not been present for much of the governor’s race. His relationship with Vitter is rocky, and some state Republicans say he has not provided leadership.
“There was nobody to really unify the party,” Duffy told AMI Newswire. “I think that’s really another problem for Vitter: that nobody is out there doing what needs to be done and he has taken on all of the GOP stuff on his own. You don’t have an army of RNC people.”
“It is a ruby red state, no doubt about it, but I think people are just fed up with Jindal and want to make his legacy that he helped elect a Democrat,” Chervenak added.
“We will continue getting out our vote and highlighting the dramatic differences between David Vitter, a Louisiana conservative, and John Bel Edwards, an Obama liberal,” a worker on the Vitter campaign told AMI Newswire in an email.
Edwards’ campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.