For a long time, Louisiana Democrats had no idea what to do about a problem like David Vitter. The socially conservative senator had survived the 2007 discovery of his phone number in the call logs of the “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey, admitted he committed “a serious sin,” and promptly ducked out of sight, only to reappear three years later and use the state’s antipathy toward Obama as a cudgel with which to crush his Democratic opponent by double digits.
This year, Vitter hoped to parlay his position as the state’s most powerful politician into the governorship and was long considered the prohibitive favorite. But, almost out of nowhere, he has stumbled into what might prove the most serious political crisis of his career. He’s trailing his Democratic challenger in nearly every major poll, in some by double digits. If he loses, John Bel Edwards, state House minority leader, will become only the second Democrat serving in a major statewide office in the entire Deep South. And Vitter’s precipitous fall, should it come to pass, would be largely of his own creation. It has manifested in the last few weeks of the campaign in the most bizarre ways: a new video from a former sex worker who claims that he fathered her child, the arrest of a private detective allegedly paid by the campaign to spy on his opponents, and the airing of years of bad blood between him and other Republicans in the state.
But the most ironic twist in Vitter’s saga is that while he has long sought to undermine current Governor Bobby Jindal — who earlier this year earned the distinction of being named the least popular governor in the United States — he may now be suffering from the aftereffects of Jindal’s terrible record. “Jindal has done such damage to the Republican brand in this state,” says Bob Mann, who was former Democratic governor Kathleen Blanco’s communications director but now chairs the journalism department at LSU. “Since Vitter and Jindal don’t really disagree that much on policy, a lot of voters probably aren’t all that excited about another four years of Republican rule.”
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Vitter entered the governor’s race with almost $10 million behind him, more than all of the other candidates combined. He drew two Republican opponents, Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne, the state’s former and current lieutenant governors. In part because Vitter was essentially running as the incumbent, and in part because he doesn’t seem to know any less vicious means of conducting politics, his campaign and the super-pac supporting him went over the top with negative attacks on Angelle and Edwards, calling them “a pair of used-car salesmen” and accusing them of misappropriating state funds. In return, both Angelle and Dardenne — another of the Louisiana pols Vitter has feuded with over the years — started attacking Vitter over his “serious sin.” Right before the primary in late October, a former sex worker said in a video posted on a local reporter’s blog that she’d had a long-term affair with Vitter and gave birth to his child.
The reporters who have looked into the story have raised serious questions about her claim, but it was enough to give Dardenne and Angelle an opening. When asked how he differed from Vitter, Dardenne told an audience: “I have not frequented prostitution at all, especially not while on the floor of the U.S. Congress.” At the final primary debate, Angelle warned voters about the dangers of electing a scandal-tainted man into the governor’s office: “There is a shadow that has been cast over Senator Vitter, a shadow that if it continues, will follow Louisiana,” Angelle said. Around the same time, a private investigator working for Vitter’s campaign was arrested for trying to film Vitter’s ideological opponents — a bizarre episode that political reporters in the state are still digging into.
Vitter’s attacks on Angelle and Dardenne worked, sort of: In the October 24 jungle primary, in which candidates from both parties compete for the largest share of votes, Vitter won 23 percent, compared to Angelle’s 19 percent and Dardenne’s 15 percent. But the attacks had a major downside for Vitter, too. Democrat John Bel Edwards — who was able to mostly avoid the internecine fighting of his Republican opponents for much of the primary — emerged with nearly 40 percent of the vote. Ahead of the runoff election later this month, Edwards leads in nearly every major poll.
It’s possible that Vitter still pulls off a win, if he attracts the voters who went for Dardenne and Angelle. But now that he has a real shot at beating Vitter, Edwards isn’t shying away from using the prostitution scandal. On Friday, Edwards released one of the most brutal campaign ads in recent memory, attempting to contrast his own service in the 82nd Airborne with the fact that Vitter appears to have taken a phone call from the “D.C. Madam”’s business shortly after skipping a ceremonial vote honoring fallen soldiers. “David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots,” a voice-over ominously intones, to an image of Vitter superimposed in front of the tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
Now Vitter is finally dealing with the political consequences of an issue that he never really had to discuss before. He emerged Monday with a new campaign video addressing what happened: “Fifteen years ago I failed my family,” he said, “but found forgiveness and love.” It’s the most he’s said publicly about the scandal since it was revealed.
The years of infighting with other members of the GOP are coming back to hurt him, too. So far, Angelle has not bothered to endorse Vitter, as is customary when a candidate loses in a primary. Dardenne, meanwhile, has endorsed the Democrat, Edwards. Though some GOP officials have tried to paint it as an act of betrayal, the endorsement “is a reflection of years of abuse and neglect by the Republican Party Establishment in the state of Louisiana that was exacerbated by the Vitter operation’s relentless character assassination for nearly a decade,” a source close to Dardenne told me.
Both Jindal and Vitter were once held up as the bright future of the Republican Party. But their feud dates back to the days when Vitter announced a surprise press conference addressing the prostitution scandal on the same day as Jindal’s announcement that he was running for governor. Jindal, who clashed with the Vitter-friendly legislators in the state government, declined to endorse the senator when he faced reelection in 2010. When Jindal had his reelection campaign a year later, Vitter slyly said he was endorsing him to “help Bobby become as engaged and bold as possible in his second term.”
Vitter hasn’t been shy about criticizing Jindal’s record as governor, either, and he’s had a lot to work with: Under Jindal, the state went from a $1 billion budget surplus to a $1.6 billion deficit. Jindal’s unpopularity obliterated the argument for his own presidential candidacy. “He abandoned the state to campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire,” says Mike Bayham, a GOP strategist supporting Vitter. “There’s certainly a lot of resentment toward Jindal for it.” Almost since he announced he was running, Jindal has been traveling the country like a rock star doing one last tour because he’s finally been kicked out of his house: He doesn’t really know what he’s doing out there, but he knows he can’t go home.
If Vitter goes down, the victory for Jindal in watching his old foe fail could be bittersweet. “This could come back to hurt him,” Mann says. “If Vitter loses, people could say that Jindal ruined the Republican brand. If that gets back to people in Iowa that, wow, Jindal was such a horrible governor that he took Vitter down — that would be bad. That’s what I would say if I were Huckabee or Cruz.” The question is whether, at this point, any of his opponents will even think he’s worth attacking. Their feud, it seems, was mutually self-destructive.