David Vitter's resurrection

Stephanie Grace on how Louisiana's junior senator has emerged as a powerbroker in Baton Rouge



As Gov. Bobby Jindal single-mindedly plans for life beyond Louisiana, the state Republican Party is planning for life beyond Jindal. And nobody is poised to play a bigger role than a man whose career was on life support just six years ago: U.S. Sen. David Vitter.

  Louisiana may have a powerful governorship held by a man re-elected less than two years ago with 66 percent of the vote, but in many ways Vitter, not Jindal, already has become the de facto leader of the state's GOP.

  This isn't really a comeback story. Other high-profile politicians from both major parties — like former South Carolina governor and newly elected U.S. Rep Mark Sanford and former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner — have been pleading with voters for a second chance after being forced from office for personal improprieties. Meanwhile, Vitter, who admitted to an unspecified "serious sin" after his phone number was discovered in the records of a Washington, D.C., call girl operation, never left public life.

  Instead, it's a tale of luck, aggressiveness, what some would call outright shamelessness — and shrewd political strategy.

  First, the luck: Not only did Vitter's wife Wendy stand by her man, but another woman, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, also played an unwitting part in his survival. Had Vitter resigned in 2007 when the scandal broke, Blanco could have appointed a Democrat to replace him in the closely divided U.S. Senate. Vitter's GOP colleagues, even though few cared for him on a personal level, had good reason to rally to his side.

  But don't discount other parts of the equation. While some politicians have at least acted humbled, Vitter initially hid from view and then plowed ahead as if nothing had happened. He amassed an army of allies in Baton Rouge and executed a flawless strategy to win re-election in 2010, at the height of Tea Party-driven fervor against President Barack Obama: While Democrat Charlie Melancon, then the congressman from Louisiana's 3rd District, sought to make the race a referendum on Vitter's character, Vitter managed to make it all about the president. The vote wasn't even close.

  Now, sporting an approval rating safely in positive territory (while Jindal's has slipped below even Obama's), Vitter is busy flexing his political muscle. He frequently weighs in on state-level issues. He has taken it upon himself to rally the GOP behind a consensus candidate in next year's Senate race against his Democratic colleague Mary Landrieu. As contenders start jockeying to replace Jindal in 2015, Vitter's holding a spot in the top tier — just in case he decides to use it.

  Vitter declined an interview request for this story and hasn't said much about a possible run for governor, but all sorts of signs suggest he'll throw his hat in the ring. A well-heeled ally has set up a Super PAC to support Vitter "and his conservative agenda for Louisiana," according to Charlie Spies, who filed paperwork to establish The Fund for Louisiana's Future. The Super PAC is registered in D.C. and Baton Rouge. That way it could back either a federal or state-level agenda.

  "I would surmise that he's at least thinking about it in a big way," said J.T. Hannan, a board member and former chair of the Greater New Orleans Republicans, echoing a sentiment shared by some others.

That Vitter survived a sex scandal isn't even the most remarkable part of his trajectory. Just as amazing is that the one-time lone wolf has emerged as leader of the pack.

Will the Louisiana State Capitol be Vitter's next power base? State Republicans respect his tenacity, though many don't like him personally. - PHOTO BY PATTIE STEIB
  • Photo by Pattie Steib
  • Will the Louisiana State Capitol be Vitter's next power base? State Republicans respect his tenacity, though many don't like him personally.

  To say that the David Vitter who served in the Louisiana Legislature was not a team player is an understatement. Elected in 1991 in a Metairie House district previously represented by Nazi sympathizer and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, Vitter quickly became known less for his political conservatism than for reform efforts that often were aimed squarely at his own colleagues. He fought gambling and legislative pay raises; pushed to release records of embarrassing Tulane scholarships that lawmakers had awarded to supporters, relatives and even their own kids; and in 1995 shamed fellow lawmakers into letting voters amend the Louisiana Constitution to limit legislators to three four-year terms, starting then.

  All that, plus a caustic personality, a hair-trigger temper and a penchant for getting quoted in the press earned Vitter a reputation as an opportunistic, holier-than-thou scold, even among like-minded Republicans. To the chagrin of his detractors in the political class, the very behavior that earned him so much enmity also enhanced his reputation among voters. Years ago, one supporter put it this way: "I've had several politicians tell me they don't like him. I don't like them."

  In late 1998, an irresistible opportunity arose, one that no one could have foreseen. Bob Livingston, the 1st District Congressman who was about to become speaker of the House, abruptly resigned just as the House was debating President Bill Clinton's impeachment. That came right after Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt forced Livingston to admit to extramarital affairs.

  The announcement opened the floodgates of politicians hoping to represent the highly conservative district. Fearing chaos and the nightmare scenario that a crowded open primary could result in a Duke-versus-a-Democrat runoff, party elders attempted to clear the field and unify behind respected 70-year-old former Gov. Dave Treen, who would have kept the seat warm while the establishment could pick a consensus successor. After all, Treen had served in Congress before winning the 1979 governor's race. Most younger hopefuls, including current incumbent and then-state Rep. Steve Scalise, stood down.

  Not Vitter. Instead, he quit the Legislature, pumped more than $700,000 of his own money into the campaign and went all out in what became a nasty intraparty brawl. Despite lopsided official support for Treen, Vitter, then 38, took the seat. Five years later, when U.S. Sen. John Breaux retired, Vitter — without breaking a sweat — became the first modern-day Republican to represent Louisiana in the U.S. Senate.

  Given how his own congressional career launched, there's some irony that, 14 years later, Vitter's now the establishment figure looking to cull the field for the party's greater good. Yet that's reportedly what he did when he got on the phone with John Fleming, a wealthy Minden, La., congressman who could have engaged in a real slugfest with fellow GOP Congressman Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge, and helped persuade Fleming to forgo the race against Landrieu next year. A source familiar with the conversation said Vitter didn't push out Fleming or cut a deal, but did share his expertise in statewide elections and pointed out that Cassidy would be tough to beat.

So far the only announced candidate in the governor's race is House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards of Amite. - PHOTO BY ROBIN MAY
  • Photo by Robin May
  • So far the only announced candidate in the governor's race is House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards of Amite.

  The impending Senate race offers another signal of Vitter's primacy: When Cassidy first started exploring a run against Landrieu, he hired Timmy Teepell, Jindal's top political adviser, as a consultant. Teepell's now out and longtime Vitter aide Joel DiGrado is managing the Cassidy campaign.

A larger, related irony is that Vitter has gained influence, and even a measure of popularity, in the same chamber where he once had trouble finding a friend.

  Lots of politicians who make it to the U.S. Senate don't look back, particularly during the long six years between elections, but Vitter has stayed intimately involved in politics and policy debates back in Baton Rouge. He often provides guidance and public support to Jindal's more conservative adversaries (the senator and the governor have similar resumes — both are ambitious Ivy League-educated Rhodes scholars — but they have no apparent use for one another).

  The relationships are based on more than just ideological affinity. There's also gratitude.

  Back in 2005, with Blanco still in the governor's mansion and news of the prostitution scandal two years away, Vitter was the undisputed senior Republican in a state growing ever more conservative. Yet the Legislature remained majority Democrat.

  Vitter set out to change that. He convened a group called the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority and got down in the weeds, recruiting candidates, raising money, sponsoring ads and mailers and recording robocalls that attacked Democratic opponents of GOP legislative candidates. It sent a clear message to conservative Democrats: if they didn't switch parties, they too might face a Republican opponent. (Vitter also reached out to them personally asking that they rethink their party affiliation, and many did.) It worked. Even before the 2011 statewide elections, the GOP took control of both chambers of the Louisiana Legislature. History was surely on their side, but many top Republicans credit Vitter with accelerating the changeover and cementing the new majority.

  "David is a smart guy, and David realizes when a team needs to be formed to get to particular purposes, and he's very good at doing that. Nobody can put a campaign together like him," said Tony Ligi, a former state representative who headed the GOP caucus before resigning his legislative seat last year.

  Helping the GOP cause was Vitter's term-limits time bomb; built in 1995, it exploded in 2007. Forced out were his remaining old adversaries, and in their place came a new generation that included most of the so-called "fiscal hawks" who have spent the last couple of years fighting Jindal on budget matters. It all played out so well, it was almost as if Vitter had planned the whole thing.

Vitter was wounded in a sex scandal in 2007, but in what some characterize as "shrewd political strategy," he remained in office and eventually regained the respect of his D.C. colleagues and the state GOP. Had he resigned, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco (center) could have replaced him with a Democrat. Now Vitter is campaigning against his Democratic colleague, Sen. Mary Landrieu (right). - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Vitter was wounded in a sex scandal in 2007, but in what some characterize as "shrewd political strategy," he remained in office and eventually regained the respect of his D.C. colleagues and the state GOP. Had he resigned, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco (center) could have replaced him with a Democrat. Now Vitter is campaigning against his Democratic colleague, Sen. Mary Landrieu (right).

  Not all Republicans belong to the Vitter fan club. Talk to members of the old guard, and you're still likely to hear off-the-record snark about his personality and his personal peccadillos. But mixed in is often-grudging admiration for his political skills. One longtime Republican said the best way to characterize politicos' relationship with Vitter is that those who knew him when now "tolerate" him.

  Then there are those, like former House Speaker Jim Tucker, who joined the Legislature after Vitter left and rose to lead the GOP Caucus, who look back approvingly at Vitter's tactics — and his results.

  "While he ruffled people who enjoyed the status quo at the time, he wanted to shake things up because he thought we could do better," Tucker said. "I think that's been his mantra from day one. Before term limits, you stood in line and waited your turn. That's where the apple cart got upset."

  Vitter's success in building a team stands in sharp contrast to Jindal's, who campaigns frequently for politicians in other states but generally steers clear of Louisiana races, including Vitter's 2010 re-election. When the governor has tried to put his muscle behind candidates, the results have mostly been disappointing. In fact, Jindal, who at first came off as comparatively gregarious, has become notorious in Baton Rouge for keeping to himself and eschewing relationships, increasingly to his detriment.

  Still, Vitter's ability to get his way extends only so far. During the 2011 statewide elections, Vitter backed candidates in two Republican-on-Republican races — Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser over incumbent Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, and Tucker over sitting Secretary of State Tom Schedler. Both of Vitter's chosen candidates lost. That could be because their opponents had more name recognition. Or it may be because Vitter's very presence sent a message to moderates and Democrats that the other candidate would be more up their alley.

  This highlights a challenge as Vitter ponders his own run for governor. To win, he probably needs the anemic state Democratic Party to come up with a candidate strong enough to squeeze out a more moderate Republican — Dardenne, say, or perhaps Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand or Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain. Pretty much any major Republican would attract the bulk of the Democratic vote in a runoff against Vitter. As of now, the only announced prospect is the well-regarded but not particularly well-known chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite. (See last week's cover story, "Getting Their Ass in Gear.")

Former Louisiana Speaker of the House Jim Tucker says Vitter is a smart politician who isn't afraid to shake things up — and he gets results.
  • Former Louisiana Speaker of the House Jim Tucker says Vitter is a smart politician who isn't afraid to shake things up — and he gets results.

  A Vitter governorship would set off a chain reaction that would extend his reach even beyond the already powerful office. Just as Blanco would have appointed his replacement had he not sur- vived in 2007, Governor Vitter would be able to install a friendly face — or a potential opponent who might be persuaded to skip the governor's race in favor of a future opportunity — once he resigns his Senate seat.

  The wild card, several supporters speculate, actually rests not in Louisiana but back in D.C.

  Vitter may have been considered an up-and-comer when he first arrived in the Senate, but the scandal earned him a reputation as yet another politician who doesn't practice the family values he preaches. In fact, it still makes him the punch line of the occasional late-night TV joke and has likely kept him off the national speaking circuit — where Jindal is a regular presence. As a predictably hardcore conservative, he's rarely at the center of the country's major ideological debates. And one of his go-to procedural maneuvers, placing a hold on Obama nominees, echoes his old Baton Rouge me-against-the-world ways in a chamber known for clubbiness.

  One popular theory is that Vitter has focused so much energy on affairs back home because he has hit a glass ceiling in the Senate. Supporters argue that his actions resulted from a genuine concern for the state, but there's no question Louisiana has been more forgiving than the rest of the country.

  Still, the landscape in Washington is looking friendlier these days, to the clear surprise of those documenting the change.

  In March, The Washington Post's Style section declared Vitter's banishment over and his rehabilitation "almost complete." The newspaper highlighted Vitter's successful collaboration with left-leaning California Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee (on which Vitter is the ranking Republican), to pass a rewrite of the Water Resources Development Act out of their committee — unanimously. The bill aims to reform how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pursues projects, which has been one of Vitter's top legislative priorities for years (the Obama administration has raised some objections to the bill as written).

  Vitter also has been winning praise for teaming up with another progressive Democrat, Ohio's Sherrod Brown, on a nascent measure aimed at averting future government bailouts of banks considered too big to fail.

  Then there's his intervention in the Senate race against Landrieu, which, if it finally gives the GOP a seat it's long coveted, could earn him even more stroke within the party.

  Several sources close to Vitter see a promising future in Washington as well as in Baton Rouge. They predict he'll wait until after the 2014 midterm elections to decide whether to run for governor. The theory goes that if the Republicans take the U.S. Senate, or if it appears they'll be in striking distance in 2016, Vitter may want to stick around and see what he can do as a senior member of the majority party.

  In short, thanks to equal helpings of skill and circumstance, Vitter has more than one potential path to both political prominence and further redemption.

  On second thought, maybe this is a comeback story after all.

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