What observers were 99.44 percent sure about became 100 percent yesterday when Sen. David Vitter announced he would run for Louisiana governor in 2015. He immediately becomes the favorite and his decision and a potential win as a result dramatically alter the state’s political landscape.
Not really for Democrats, with one exception. This should discourage New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu from running for governor (assuming he wins reelection this spring where he is the favorite; a defeat most likely snuffs any thought of statewide office). Vitter’s strength comes from his ability, unparalleled among current state Republicans, to unite both traditional, principled conservatives and populist conservatives. Perhaps the most populist-oriented state in the country, and certainly the most in the South given its political culture and history, as a consequence there is a significant Republican component among populists as well as with Democrats, which in most places is their natural home. Not only can Vitter grab a good share of the former, he also can pick off some of the latter, shielding them from Landrieu or the only announced Democrat in the contest, state Rep. John Bel Edwards. Landrieu can hope for victory only if he can corral a good portion of white populists, the chances of which diminished considerably with Vitter’s entrance. Landrieu is more likely to consider substituting for his sister Mary should she lose to Rep. Bill Cassidy in her reelection bid in 2014 should Vitter win in 2015 in the 2016 contest to succeed Vitter.
Also discouraging his entrance should be the presence of state Treas. John Kennedy, the only real competitor Vitter has for conservative populists. While many consider that Vitter now removes Kennedy’s oxygen from the race, Kennedy’s recent announcement validating fundraising prowess may indicate he eventually will run regardless of Vitter. This certainly dampens Kennedy’s chances should he enter, but should he this creates even more competition for the populist vote. Meanwhile, at this point Vitter had a clear path to collecting the large majority of the principled conservative vote – despite the fact that this vote largely allies itself with Gov. Bobby Jindal, who does not hang with Vitter.
Vitter now in also reduces considerably the chance that a traditional conservative whether allied with Jindal will jump into the race. His name recognition and ability to raise funds makes opposing him depending on that base little more than a vanity project. In reality, the only politician better off relative to state government as a result of this choice is the all-but-announced candidate Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. His base and appeal is to more moderate, often related to the business sector, conservatives, with potential crossover to moderate Democrats. Vitter’s insertion into the campaign erodes little his base and discourages others like Mitch Landrieu who could eat into it.
If the field went as is regarding competitive candidates – Vitter, Dardenne, Edwards – Vitter is at least an even-money shot to win outright without a runoff. But if Vitter cannot do so, then it’s even money between Dardenne and Edwards to be there with him, where Dardenne’s chances increase the more under 50 percent Vitter gets in the general election. And Dardenne’s chances actually improve should Kennedy sign up, because he will take more from Vitter and Edwards than from Dardenne, making Vitter more prone to a runoff.
However, Dardenne benefits from not having Kennedy around in one respect: that presents a clearer choice for Republicans disgruntled with Vitter to abandon him in Dardenne’s favor. Throughout his two-decade-plus political career, Vitter’s take-no-prisoners campaigning and governing styles have made some enemies among those who otherwise agree with him largely on ideology. They will look for any conservative but Vitter, and the populists that slough off from him as a result of Kennedy getting in would probably just be marginally more than conservatives who head Kennedy’s way instead of Dardenne’s. This becomes an even more all-or-nothing proposition for Dardenne in that if Kennedy grabs too much from others to create a runoff, he may ace out Dardenne for that runoff.
Then there’s the most likely “what-if” scenario of a Vitter win. Probably Jindal will name a successor – perhaps even himself if the timing’s right although he would need Vitter’s cooperation here – and let that placeholder hang out until the term ends and gets filled by the 2016 elections. Assuming Jindal defers for whatever reason, likely candidates would include Rep. John Fleming, state Sen. Elbert Guillory (regardless of whether he wins the lieutenant governor’s spot left open by Dardenne), Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle (perhaps after running for Cassidy’s current post should he defeat Mary Landrieu), and even Dardenne and the only non-GOP politician on this list, Mitch Landrieu (should Mary lose; voters never would tolerate siblings in the U.S. Senate from the minority party of elected state and federal officials).
It would not be entirely accurate to say that Vitter stands astride the field as did Jindal in 2007; Dardenne alone is a more competitive candidate than any Jindal opponent then. But it wouldn’t be that inaccurate either. Now, any discussion of who is governor after Jindal must begin with Vitter, and all political calculations related to this race must incorporate him as the largest factor.