BAYHAM: How It Went Down: Explaining the Vitter Defeat

After years of political humiliation and marginalization, the Democrats managed to finally get back on the board in Louisiana winning the governorship while defeating their Republican archnemesis.

Below is a breakdown on how the governor’s race played out.

Disciplined Democrat Messaging:  John Bel Edwards did as good of a job sticking on message against David Vitter as Bill Cassidy had the year before against Mary Landrieu.  Edwards masterfully managed to define himself and the runoff as the choice between an Army ranger who encouraged his wife to not have an abortion versus an immoral politician who disrespected fallen servicemen.   Everything else was left for poorly managed public television debates.

DTV  > GOTV: The “Patriots/Prostitutes” ad set a new low for mudslinging in Louisiana.  And while it might not have won many converts to Edwards’s candidacy, the commercial did a magnificent job keeping Vitter’s voters at home.  The 2015 gubernatorial election was decided not by “Get Out The Vote” but by “Depress Their Vote”.  Unfortunately, Edwards’s success has legitimized these tactics and the electorate that caterwauls about dirty campaigns has by default invited more of it in the future.

An Old Sin Revisited: Vitter had assumed/hoped that the prostitution scandal that broke in 2007 would be irrelevant in 2015- after all he had been re-elected to the US Senate by almost 20 points only three years later.  You’d have thought that such old news would be irrelevant but Edwards tossed some salt and pepper on it and served it up in a different context by exploiting a vote on a commemorative resolution that had passed unanimously into the most important legislative vote since the Civil Rights Act.

By the time Vitter managed to counter that uppercut to his character, it was too late.

Senatorial/Gubernatorial Dynamics: Just as Dardenne was guilty of believing that there was no difference between a gubernatorial run and a bid for Secretary of State or Lieutenant Governor (all three are statewide races!), Vitter did not recognize the difference between running for US Senator and governor.

David Duke got closer to the US Senate than he did the governor’s mansion for a reason: people in Louisiana apply a different standard to their governors.  Hence no Louisiana politicians in the post- 17th Amendment era have transitioned from US Senator to governor.  US Senators Russell Long, J. Bennett Johnston, and John Breaux explored running for governor before passing.  Vitter’s affair played  out differently because voters view a governor in more personable terms and they proved less forgiving than the senator’s own family.

Other differences from 2010: Vitter essentially had a clear path to the general election, facing only token intraparty opposition; voters were more worried about stopping the Obama agenda instead of who slept with whom; Vitter and the national/state GOP mercilessly hammered Democratic candidate Charlie Melancon from the start; and 2010 was a wave election year nationally while 2015 was the tail end of eight years of an unpopular Republican governor’s administration.

Speaking of Jindal: Had Bobby Jindal not ended his presidential campaign last week, it was going to definitely end this week.  Vitter’s defeat would have been the final nail in the coffin of his struggling candidacy.  While Jindal apologists will blame Vitter’s sin on the Democrats’ victory, the governor’s dismal approval would have been a lead weight around the ankles of any Republican gubernatorial candidate- especially Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, the closest thing to a Jindal “third term” in the field.

Does anyone doubt that if Vitter were facing Jindal instead of Edwards in the runoff, the Vitter family would be moving into the Governor’s Mansion in January?

Primary Mistake: Amazingly Edwards went virtually untouched throughout the primary.  With Vitter and his Super PAC fighting to stay afloat in the face of a barrage from the Edwards campaign, the state Democrats, the Super PACs and his fellow Republicans, someone else had to damage Edwards in the primary to ensure he did not go into the runoff with a big lead.

It’s not like there wasn’t time as Edwards was the lone Democrat in the race once Mitch Landrieu took himself out of consideration back in late April.

Edwards’s legislative record, floor speeches and committee testimony never saw the light of day- an astounding dereliction considering that he had served as his party’s lead attack dog throughout his time in the House of Representatives.

When Edwards scored first in the primary with 40%, the race was essentially over while Vitter and the GOP were trying to write their attacks in dried cement.

With a Little Shiv from My Friends:  Not since the rise of Duke have so many Republicans publicly denounced a member of their own party.  As some of these attacks came from Republicans who have previously  supported Democrats, these cross-party endorsements should have been discounted.

However one notable defection was of Vitter’s own making, Jay Dardenne.  The lieutenant governor had been targeted for defeat by Vitter when Dardenne ran for re-election in 2011.

In the gubernatorial campaign Vitter and his Super PAC blasted Dardenne hard in the primary, particularly regarding Dardenne’s “birthday bash” (the website is still up).   While I didn’t agree with Dardenne’s decision to publicly back Edwards, the move could not have come as much of a surprise in light of the history of attacks from Vitter’s camp.

By contrast, Angelle, who is a recent convert to the GOP and has ambitions to seek higher office again, might have problems for his “belligerent neutrality” in the runoff. Republicans will question his reliability and loyalty, especially if/when the Democratic administration governs to the left of the centrist position Edwards had staked out in the campaign.




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