In the race for governor, U.S. Sen. David Vitter (left) will face questions and criticism about his prostitution scandal. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (center) and state Rep. John Bel Edwards (right) promise as much.
Just in time for the 10th anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Louisiana governor's race looks to be a perfect storm that strikes in late August and all of September. The outer bands are already upon us.
Early frontrunner U.S. Sen. David Vitter is running true to form — attacking straw-man opponents. When a statewide poll by Verne Kennedy showed the senator slipping among his core constituencies (evangelicals, Republicans and seniors), Vitter's campaign staff broadsided the pollster.
Days later, Vitter attacked another non-candidate, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, saying Hizzoner should focus on murders, not Confederate monuments. The attack on Landrieu is classic Vitter — find an opponent who's not running but who evokes antipathy among your core constituency, and fire away.
It works on several levels. It grabs headlines and makes Vitter look "tough," and it deflects attention from Vitter's vulnerabilities — particularly his prostitution scandal. That was the strategy in Vitter's 2010 Senate re-election campaign against then-U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon. Vitter ran against Barack Obama, not Melancon. He also skipped candidate debates until the final days and avoided encounters with the media and potentially hostile audiences. It worked perfectly.
To an extent, he's doing that again in the governor's race. Vitter's staff notes that he has attended more than a dozen forums this time — but he carefully picks his live audiences. That same strategy worked last year for then-U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy against Mary Landrieu for U.S. Senate. Vitter was the architect of Cassidy's victory, and it previewed the senator's current strategy for governor.
It appears to be working well for Vitter this time, too. Landrieu, who cannot stand Vitter, gave the senator an early Christmas present by taking the bait and responding to the attack. That's exactly what Vitter wanted, because it kept the fight alive in the media and echoed Vitter's message among the groups whose support he needs to shore up.
Best of all, it steered attention away from Vitter's potential vulnerability.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne has made human trafficking and prostitution a major policy plank of his gubernatorial platform. At the same forum where Vitter first unloaded on Landrieu (a gathering of Louisiana State Troopers), Dardenne addressed the link between prostitution — especially the "johns" — and human trafficking. "Patrons of prostitution encourage human trafficking and other dangerous crimes," Dardenne said. "We need to end human trafficking."
State Rep. John Bel Edwards, thus far the only Democrat in the race (and the guy Vitter desperately wants as a runoff opponent — so he can run against Obama again), followed suit. Both Edwards and Dardenne promised to keep the prostitution/human trafficking issue alive as the campaign unfolds.
Vitter's response to the prostitution question — when it's asked — is a curt, "I've already answered that." Which, of course, is not an answer at all.
In the coming perfect storm, it will be interesting to see what gets asked and answered by all the candidates. Vitter is a master political strategist, relentless and merciless on the attack, and he has more campaign money (particularly via SuperPacs) than all his opponents combined. Will it be enough to fend off the ill winds headed his way?
The storm approaches.