The gubernatorial runoff between John Bel Edwards and David Vitter will be the ultimate test of the notion that a Democrat cannot win statewide in Louisiana.
Edwards is as close as Louisiana Democrats can get to a perfect candidate for governor — West Point grad, Army ranger and 82nd Airborne commander, solid legislative record of working with both parties, Catholic, pro-life, pro-gun, a country boy who appeals to urban voters.
Vitter, meanwhile, may be the most flawed Republican you could imagine — aloof, self-righteous, hypocritical, ruthless, hounded by scandals (note the plural these days), disliked intensely even by members of his own party. If you tried to invent a tainted candidate, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with somebody worse than Vitter.
Despite all that, Vitter has one quality that could overcome all his drawbacks: He's a Republican running against a Democrat in Louisiana.
That's why most experts consider the race a toss-up — although it was clear by the end of the runoff campaign's first week that Vitter was still in a free-fall that began about 10 days before the Oct. 24 primary.
The first statewide poll of the four-week runoff had Vitter trailing Edwards by 12 percentage points — and that was with Vitter getting 19 percent of the black vote, something that won't happen on Election Day. He's more likely to get 5 percent or less. Factoring in historic black voting patterns, Edwards was more like 18 to 20 points ahead, which explains why Vitter went thermonuclear right out of the blocks.
Vitter's most prevalent TV ad attempts to tie Edwards to President Barack Obama, who's almost as unpopular hereabouts as Gov. Bobby Jindal. That's pretty much Vitter's only option. The take-no-prisoners senator burned every potential bridge in the primary by fiercely attacking fellow Republicans Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle, both of whom accused him of lying.
Vitter hoped from Day One that he would get Edwards in the runoff. He no doubt figured all he would need to do is repeat the formula that worked for his 2010 Senate re-election campaign against Charlie Melancon and for Bill Cassidy's 2014 campaign (which Vitter orchestrated) against then-Sen. Mary Landrieu. Throughout his 24-year career in politics, Vitter's stock in trade has been running against villains who were not his real opponents. It always worked.
Even long-time Vitter foes concede that he's a brilliant strategist who stays on message and controls every facet of his campaigns. That's why it was shocking to see him come unglued over the last three weeks. From a resurrected prostitution scandal to the still-unfolding "Spygate" story about Vitter tailing private citizens via a hackneyed private eye from Texas, the senator seems to have lost his political grip. His desperation shows: He now says he's eager to debate Edwards.
For his part, Edwards is reaching out to Republican officials and to constituencies that he knows cannot stand the standoffish Vitter. Edwards picked up a key endorsement from the Louisiana Sheriffs Association two days after the primary.
Edwards and a supportive Super PAC likewise put up a pair of ads to counter Vitter's Obama offensive. Team Edwards posted one with the Amite state representative looking right into the camera, warning voters that Vitter will spend millions "lying about my record, my values, and my service to our country and our state." Noting that Vitter offers only "deception and hypocrisy," Edwards concludes by saying, "I live by the West Point Honor Code: I will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do." Then, with a laugh, he adds, "David Vitter wouldn't last a day at West Point."
The ad is a smart counterpoint — and pre-emptive strike — against Vitter's predictable barrage of ads linking Edwards to Obama, the senator's favorite bogeyman. It didn't take long for Vitter to fulfill expectations.
Within days of the primary, the Vitter campaign unleashed a ferocious advertising blitz that not only attempted to tie Edwards to Obama but also claimed the Democrat would release 5,500 violent "thugs" from Louisiana jails if he's elected. The ad contained gritty shots of black men in jail, hands cutting cocaine, and a scared white woman peeking helplessly from behind a set of blinds as the narrator warned of dangerous criminals being released "back into our neighborhoods."
Here's the truth: Edwards and many Republicans support bipartisan incarceration alternatives that do not involve releasing anyone from jail. The Vitter ad is a gross distortion that belies Vitter's own position on prison reform.
During the WDSU-TV debate on Oct. 1, which was one of only two live TV debates Vitter attended during the primary, the senator turned a query about legalizing marijuana into a blanket statement about prison reform that contradicts his ad. He said, "We warehouse way too many nonviolent criminals in Louisiana."
The ad was blasted immediately as racist by columnist Bob Mann and the New Orleans NAACP, which demanded Vitter take it down. The latter criticism is probably just what Vitter wanted — black people attacking him. But the ad drew even sharper criticism from a source Vitter may not have anticipated: veteran conservative columnist Jim Beam of the Lake Charles American Press.
Beam, one of the state's most respected political writers, compared Vitter to another reckless Republican U.S. senator, the late Joseph McCarthy. His Oct. 29 column pulled no punches in labeling the ad "misleading and malicious ... slanted and vicious." Beam noted that Vitter "has a consistent history of campaigning against other public figures rather than telling voters what he wants to do for them." He concluded with the words that sent McCarthy into political oblivion in the 1950s: "Have you no sense of decency?"
The sheriffs association followed up with a news conference on Friday, Oct. 30, praising Edwards for his record on law enforcement and denouncing the Vitter ad as bunk and "silly." Edwards called Vitter "a desperate man ... [who] excels at division." The sheriffs are expected to be just the first wave of runoff endorsements for Edwards.
That same day, Vitter's cam-paign touted endorsements from four congressmen — Charles Boustany of Lafayette, John Fleming of Minden, Ralph Abraham of Alto and Garret Graves of Baton Rouge. Interestingly, Edwards led Vitter in all of their districts in the Oct. 24 primary.
Meanwhile, as voters began wondering whom fellow Republicans Angelle and Dardenne would endorse in the runoff, Gumbo PAC (an anti-Vitter super PAC) released a TV ad featuring clips of both men blistering Vitter during primary debates that Vitter declined to attend. The ad opens with Angelle's now-famous quote that Vitter's election would bring "a stench ... over Louisiana" and concludes with Dardenne calling the same result "a stain on Louisiana." The ad gives the appearance that Angelle and Dardenne already support Edwards.
In the end, it may not matter if the third and fourth place finishers don't formally back Edwards — the first poll of the runoff showed most of their voters already lining up behind the Democrat. The survey, by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, showed Edwards with 52 percent of the total vote to Vitter's 40 percent.
More important, 52 percent view Vitter "unfavorably" — and 53 percent feel Vitter is dishonest and untrustworthy. Most telling of all: 47 percent of Angelle and Dardenne's voters say they are likely to back Edwards, compared to 46 percent for Vitter.
The really bad news in that poll is that Edwards was getting 43 percent of the white vote. If he can hold that, he will beat Vitter in a rout. Vitter was getting 48 percent of the white vote, but to win on Nov. 21 he needs to get 70 percent or more, depending on turnout.
By the end of week one, the early narrative of the runoff was clearly going against Vitter — much like the closing two weeks of the Oct. 24 primary, which Edwards led with 40 percent of the vote to Vitter's disappointing 23 percent.
A month before the primary, it became apparent that Edwards would lead the pack. Black voters and white Democrats began coalescing behind him, and he peaked at just the right time. Considering that black turnout on Oct. 24 was roughly 8 percentage points lower than white turnout, Edwards' 40 percent showing was astoundingly strong. If black and white turnout had been equal, he would have gotten close to 42 percent. In the runoff, black turnout is likely to be closer to white turnout.
Vitter, on the other hand, has been going in the wrong direction since June. In the spring, the Southern Media and Opinion Research poll had him leading the pack with 38 percent, which after discounting "undecided" voters was 45 percent of the decided vote. His 23 percent tally in the primary was barely half that.
What happened to Vitter?
To put it bluntly, the more voters saw Vitter, the less they liked him. Many who leaned his way in the spring peeled off in favor of other candidates by October. As a result, he went from looking invincible in April to hobbling into the runoff — 17 points behind Edwards and only 4 points ahead of Angelle.
A closer look at some key parishes in the primary reveals more bad news for Vitter. In his home base of Jefferson Parish, he got only 38 percent of the vote; Edwards got 34 percent there. In the runoff, Vitter will need to beat Edwards with at least 65 percent of the vote in Jefferson Parish — plus 70 percent or more in ultra-conservative St. Tammany Parish— in order to offset the monolithic vote that Edwards is likely to get in Orleans Parish.
Beating Edwards soundly in St. Tammany is doable, but right now Vitter looks weak in his home parish. Elected officials in Jefferson are among Vitter's staunchest detractors, starting with popular Sheriff Newell Normand, whose deputies arrested the "investigator" that Vitter's campaign hired to trail plaintiff lawyer John Cummings. (See Commentary, p. 14.)
Turnout will be a critical factor on Nov. 21. In Jefferson's Republican-leaning East Bank precincts, there are no local runoffs. On the more Democratic West Bank, there's a hot runoff in black-majority Senate District 7, which includes all of Algiers and much of Gretna. There also are runoffs for two state House seats and a school board seat in New Orleans' heavily black 9th Ward. Those runoffs will generate solid turnout for Edwards. To Vitter's advantage, there's a hotly contested runoff for sheriff in St. Tammany.
Another key factor for both men, of course, is money. In the primary, Vitter and his super PACs had more cash than all his opponents combined. Vitter's lackluster primary vote could make some of his GOP financiers skittish about investing more in him, while the Dems smell blood. At a minimum, it appears doubtful that Vitter will have the huge financial advantage that he enjoyed (to little effect, it turns out) in the primary.
Looking ahead, Edwards is still holding his trump card: hanging Gov. Bobby Jindal around Vitter's neck. He alluded to that the night of the primary, but Team Edwards has yet to remind voters in TV ads that Vitter endorsed Jindal every time he ran for governor and is most like Jindal in his style and policies — even though Jindal and Vitter cannot stand each other.
And don't discount state lawmakers, especially Republicans, who have been re-elected in large numbers. Many are already backing Edwards quietly, but some may soon do so publicly, especially when they see poll results that portend an Edwards victory.
Vitter made extensive comments on the night of the primary about "politicians in Baton Rouge" being responsible for all the state's ills. Problem is the Legislature has had a GOP majority for the past five years — and Vitter is largely responsible for that majority. (He co-founded the Committee for a Republican Majority and was its major political backer.) Now Vitter is saying that the people he helped send to Baton Rouge — including Jindal — are the problem. That won't sit well with a lot of legislators, and it underscores a frequent criticism of Vitter: He doesn't work well with others, not even members of his own party.
Vitter may have one other arrow in his quiver: trial lawyers. With the help of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), look for Vitter to paint Edwards as "bad for business." LABI already trotted out that meme late last week.
While the early narrative and momentum favor Edwards, things could change in the next three weeks.
This much is certain: It's going to be a no-holds-barred fight.