When U.S. Senator David Vitter (R-La.) announced on Jan. 21 that he would seek the governorship of the Bayou State in 2015, one of the worst-kept secrets in Louisiana politics was finally let out in the open.
The announcement might not have been a surprise, but it did make a statement. For should Republicans recapture the Senate majority in this year's elections, Vitter is poised to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which would make him the most powerful politician Louisiana has had in Washington since Russell B. Long chaired the Senate Finance Committee from 1966 to 1981.
And given the importance of the issues under EPW’s purview, Vitter could be even better positioned to deliver on that power than did Long. EPW is instrumental in setting federal policy on coastal erosion and restoration, on offshore oil exploration and production, and on the Army Corps of Engineers and its work in building and managing flood-control structures. The committee Vitter could chair next year is vital to Louisiana's interest—and yet he would limit himself to just one year with his hand on such a crucial lever.
But Vitter has always wanted to be governor, and now he's in a position to be just that. He already has more money accumulated for the 2015 race ($1.5 million in a Vitter-connected Super PAC) than any of his prospective opponents, and he is Louisiana's most gifted politician in a generation.
The senator has needed those political gifts. In 2007, Vitter was forced to admit having committed a "serious sin" when it surfaced that his name appeared in the address book of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the notorious DC Madam. Vitter confessed that he had procured the services of Palfrey's employees back in 2001, and then quickly clammed up about the scandal in hopes it would blow over. At the time his political future was considered very much in jeopardy, but Vitter resisted calls for his resignation and just three years later he delivered a breathtaking political shellacking to Democrat Congressman Charlie Melancon, winning re-election by a 57-38 margin.
Melancon ran his entire campaign on Vitter's dalliances with hookers, but a three-year-old scandal based on conduct nine years in the past didn't prove all that explosive in a state which spent the better part of a quarter-century enduring the lurid details of Edwin Edwards's sexual escapades in and out of the governor's mansion. More than that, though, Vitter developed an outstanding talent for changing the subject and dominating water-cooler discussions by perching himself on the public high ground of popular issues that weren't necessarily partisan.
An example among many: As the New Orleans Saints were making their drive for the Super Bowl in January 2010, merchandise bearing the "Who Dat!" slogan (short for the battle cry of Saints fans, "Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" delivered in the classic Brooklynesque New Orleans patois) was all the rage. But the NFL sent out a flurry of cease-and-desist letters to mom-and-pop retailers selling "Who Dat!" gear, claiming that the slogan was covered by the league's licensing agreement. This engendered a revolt across Louisiana, and Vitter capitalized on the controversy with a brilliant piece of goodwill-building—namely, he began selling "Who Dat!" t-shirts on his campaign website and dared NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to pursue a member of the Senate as he would the small retailers. The NFL beat a hasty retreat.
Vitter's simple, small-government solution to scare away the corporate NFL menace was a big success. For months far more Louisianans gave him fond remembrances as the hero of the "Who Dat!" fight than as the state's most famous john. Examples like this one are how Vitter, a doctrinaire conservative, has managed to win over centrists and non-political voters even with the "serious sin" still on the minds of Louisiana's electorate. And in January of 2014, Vitter is Louisiana's most prominent politician—particularly since Gov. Bobby Jindal's star with the state's voters seems to be falling as his second, and last, term in office nears its stretch run.
Vitter's single greatest obstacle to higher office might be Louisiana's unique "jungle" primary system, in which the top two primary finishers, regardless of party, make the runoff.
The field for the 2015 race is still forming, but Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne might be Vitter's most formidable opponent. Dardenne, a centrist Republican, has demonstrated an ability to attract Democrat voters and independents, and has not so much as a hint of scandal in his two-decades-plus political career. While his record doesn't indicate as thorough a conservatism as Vitter's and he's not quite as adept at picking juicy political battles as Vitter is, Dardenne could be an acceptable alternative for conservatives still wary of Vitter's baggage. In a runoff with Vitter, Dardenne might carry some of those conservatives and add the bulk of the moderate and liberal vote in the state on his way to victory.
What Vitter needs is a Democrat who can block Dardenne's path to the runoff. There is a somewhat credible Democrat in the race at present in the person of John Bel Edwards, a state representative from tiny Amite. Edwards, who is aggressively working to connect with trial lawyer money and black community votes, emerged as the darling of the teachers’ unions during the high-profile 2012 debate over Jindal's education reform package and seeks to ride that notoriety to statewide relevance. Edwards also has the right political name for a Louisiana Democrat, though he's no relation to the more-famous Edwin.
But what Edwards doesn't have at present is a large war chest or much name recognition, and a November Southern Media and Opinion Research poll had him at just 8 percent in a hypothetical gubernatorial race, while Vitter led the field with 30 percent, state treasurer John Kennedy (there are conflicting reports about whether Kennedy will run) was at 19 percent, and Dardenne had 18 percent. That might indicate Edwards doesn't have enough stroke to get to the runoff, and therefore the Democrats might have to depend on New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, a former lieutenant governor who first must survive what is becoming a rather dicey re-election bid with a Feb. 1 election day looming, if they want to make a dent in the race.
Meanwhile, the Dardenne campaign commissioned its own poll which also had Vitter in the lead (with 25 percent), Landrieu in second (with 20 percent), and Dardenne in third (with 12 percent) in an 11-way race, and with a 35-29-22 split, respectively, in a three-way race. The Dardenne poll also had Vitter ahead by a meager 40-35 in an all-GOP runoff between the senator and the lieutenant governor.
Those polls indicate Vitter enters the race as a favorite and a safe bet for the runoff, though not a lock for election. They also indicate it would be nearly impossible for a Democrat to beat him in the runoff. His great fear will be the clean, centrist, and maybe slightly boring fellow Republican running to the middle and edging him with crossover support.
But if any politician in Louisiana knows how to overcome obstacles on the way to electoral victory, it's Vitter. That's why his announcement for the 2015 race was big news even if it surprised no one.