SEVEN LESSONS FROM AN ELECTION-NIGHT DUMPSTER FIRE: Lesson One

THIS RESULT WAS A PERSONAL REPUDIATION OF DAVID VITTER.

Yes, that’s a harsh statement, but how else can it be put? Conservatism didn’t lose in Louisiana; one of the most vocal left-wing, back-bench loudmouths in the Louisiana legislature won the election by 141,000 votes largely because he managed to convince some 15-18 percent of the voting public who purports to dislike leftist philosophy that he was some facsimile of a conservative. And while Louisiana GOP chairman Roger Villere’s statement noting that the party, on the whole, had a successful election is empty spin of the most irritating kind, it isn’t wrong – Billy Nungesser and Jeff Landry each carried at least 55 percent of the vote and the state legislature has more Republicans (or, better put, “Republicans,” but we’ll discuss that in another lesson) in it now than at any time since Reconstruction.

The election wasn’t about issues, it wasn’t about resumes, it wasn’t about ideology. Plain and simple, it was about David Vitter and how much the voters of this state simply can’t stand the guy.

Which is hard to square with his 57-38 blowout win over Charlie Melancon in his 2010 re-election race. The main source for voter hatred of Vitter, the 15-year old extramarital behavior which came to light in 2007, didn’t defeat him then. But the constant drumbeat of “hookers, hookers, hookers” and “hypocrite, hypocrite, hypocrite” in this election created an insurmountable gender gap and wiped out his chances of getting the job he always wanted.

Vitter ran 11 points behind his party, despite spending over $10 million on the governor’s race. He got fewer votes and a smaller percentage of the vote than Kip Holden, who didn’t run a single TV ad and barely raised and spent more than $100,000, managed in the Lt. Governor’s race.

Was it all personality for Vitter? Not necessarily. His campaign, it has to be said, wasn’t a good one – you can’t argue otherwise when you lose to an unknown state representative from nowhere by a larger margin than any Republican has lost by since David Duke in 1991.

One of the things which drives conservatives crazy, at nearly all levels of elective government, is that you simply cannot make a majority without building coalitions. In Louisiana, self-identified conservatives make up about 45 percent of the vote. To get a majority you have to add people to a coalition – state employees, cops, firemen, blacks, teachers, local courthouse mobs, longshoremen, trial lawyers, riverboat pilots, gays, college kids, limousine liberals and the arts crowd, whoever – or else you can’t get there. Conservatives know they’re the largest special interest group in politics, both here in Louisiana and elsewhere in America, but that movement is just not big enough to win on its own.

And Vitter’s campaign appealed to Louisiana’s conservatives, and them only. It expressly, in writing, threatened to break the rice bowls of all the other smaller special interests in the state.

Now, this is to be lauded on some level. On the actual issues of how to govern Louisiana it was an honest campaign. Vitter’s Together, Louisiana Strong plan outlined an agenda for governance which would have moved Louisiana away from the Longite socialism that colored its past and still remains in its public-sector institutions. But the secret to Bobby Jindal’s two successful elections was that he was able to romance some of the non-conservative special interests with assurances that he wouldn’t damage them, and as a result Jindal was able to get the support of, say, the sheriffs and big donations of the trial lawyers on his way to easy victories in 2007 and 2011. Jindal paid for that in failing, or not even trying, to make reforms against their interests and that was a factor in his miniscule approval rating at the end of his time, but that’s the dilemma of a conservative in elected office – you have to put incompatible interests together in a coalition and you’re going to end up lying to some of them. Vitter attempted to run without putting together a coalition, and paid the price in a humiliating, Goldwateresque defeat.

That defeat could maybe have been avoided with more time to educate the public on who Edwards really is, or perhaps a better job of softening Vitter’s political image. But at the end of the day Louisiana’s voters have had two decades of exposure to him and they just decided they’d seen enough.

Edwards, and those interest groups Vitter neglected to romance, turned the race into a popularity contest-cum-referendum on the Senator as the state’s governmental front man, and he was dead in the water. It’s as simple as that.

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