Onward to Baton Rouge.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Vitter Wants Louisiana Voters to Think of Paris, Not Scandal

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Senator David Vitter of Louisiana has lived a charmed life, surviving the kind of close call that would have felled most politicians. When his phone number was discovered among the records of the "D.C. Madam" in 2007, he was forced to issue a public apology and ask forgiveness for a "serious sin." He won re-election to the Senate in 2010 nonetheless.

Now the Republican is running for governor to succeed the very unpopular Bobby Jindal (who dropped his presidential bid this week). But his trespasses have caught up with him.

He should be winning easily. Louisiana is solidly Republican: Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, lost her re-election bid in 2014 and Barack Obama lost the state by huge margins twice.

Yet polls show Vit­ter dangerously behind John Bel Ed­wards, a right-of-center Democratic member of the state House of Representatives, West Point graduate and former Airborne Ranger. Vitter’s troubles took a critical turn when he failed to win the Oct. 24 free-for-all primary in which all candidates, regardless of party, compete. As he didn't clear the 50 percent required to win outright (he got just 23 percent), he was forced into a runoff with Edwards, who won 40 percent. The vote is Saturday.

Vitter has struggled to recover. He has been endorsed by the "Duck Dynasty" star Willie Robertson, but not by his two major Republican primary opponents: one has endorsed Edwards; the other has been too busy hunting to choose. According to a University of New Orleans poll, Edwards is attracting 42 percent  of the white votes. He even has the backing of a shocking 30 percent of self-identified conservatives.  If he is able to get a majority of black voters, he will break 50 percent on Election Day. 

Edwards got some help in the primary. An independent group of lawyers opposed to Vitter’s position on oil and gas regulations used video clips and lurid headlines to cobble together an ad reminding voters that Vitter, something of a scold when it comes to abstinence-only sex education, was caught up in a prostitution scandal. This gave the press a pass to revisit the past and forced Vitter to rebut with a good husband and family man ad. Edwards has aired his own negative ad, which asserted that Vitter took a call from a prostitute only minutes after he failed to show up for a Senate vote on a resolution honoring soldiers killed during Operation Desert Storm. The ad makes heavy use of photos of Edwards in his Army uniform, while Vitter is shown holding a phone.

None of this is very out there by the standards of Louisiana politics.

Remember former Governor Edwin Edwards, who said he’d stay governor unless he was caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy? He is now 88, out of prison, and married to a woman in her 30s, and flirted with a run for Congress.

Then there's former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who is now behind bars, along with former Congressman William Jefferson caught with $90,000 in bribe money in his freezer.

A debate on Monday showed how tense the governor’s race has become. When the scandal came up, Vitter tried brushing it off as a seminal moment of “redemption.” He then became defensive, yelling “It was 15 years ago.” Since then, his wife has accompanied him to public events as a human shield to deflect reporters who would rather talk about the D.C. Madam than his tax plan.  

Vitter opened another front in his battle against Edwards with an ad Monday that uses footage from the Paris terror attacks to contrast the senator's steadfast opposition to allowing Syrian refugees to be resettled in Louisiana against Edwards's support for the Obama administration's policies.     

Edwards fired back that Vitter had missed Senate hearings on refugee resettlement and that Edwards was calling for a “pause” in taking in refugees. For all the fear-mongering, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that just 14 Syrians had been relocated in Louisiana since Jan. 1.

The two conservatives have been going at each other personally because there isn’t a beignet’s worth of difference politically. Edwards is strongly pro-life and pro-gun. Vitter has voted against same-sex marriage, abortion rights, health care reform and funds for the state Children’s Health Insurance Program. He’s for a balanced budget amendment and against amnesty for undocumented immigrants. He was for Common Core educational standards before he was against them.   

Vitter looked like a sex scandal might bar his path to Baton Rouge. If he gets there, it will be by way of Paris.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net