Is Vitter on the Verge of Losing Everything?

by Nathan L. Gonzales November 11, 2015 · 10:23 AM EST

Louisiana isn’t anywhere close to belonging on a list of swing states, yet Republican David Vitter is at risk of losing not only his gubernatorial race this month, but also his Senate seat next year.

The Pelican State’s senior senator has struggled to unify the Republican vote after finishing second in the Oct. 24 jungle primary with just 23 percent. He trails Democrat John Bel Edwards in multiple public polls heading into the Nov. 21 runoff.

Vitter’s numbers have dipped to a point where, should he lose, some Republicans will want him to drop his bid for re-election to the Senate in 2016 because they are concerned he could put the seat at risk of a Democratic takeover. Republicans are already defending senators in blue and purple states, and GOP strategists don’t want to have to spend money in a state where President Barack Obama received 41 percent in 2012.

Still, with Republican Matt Bevin’s surprisingly comfortable win in last week’s gubernatorial race in Kentucky — after being down in the polls — it’s worth considering whether Obama’s unpopularity in the South could prove enough to vault Vitter to victory, too, and make a Senate decision moot.

Of the six public polls since the end of September in Kentucky, five showed Democrat Jack Conway in the lead with margins between 2 points and 5 points. A sixth poll at the end of October showed Conway and Bevin tied at 44 percent. That was the last public poll in the race, and private polls didn’t hint at the final 9-point margin either.

Just because the polling was askew in Kentucky doesn’t mean it’s off in Louisiana. Even taken at face value, Vitter faces some significant hurdles. Recent Pelican State polls, public and private, show Vitter trailing Edwards by between 8 points and 20 points, and, maybe more importantly, the Democrat is hovering at or above 50 percent.

In Kentucky, Conway consistently polled between 42 percent and 45 percent. He received 44 percent on Election Day, compared to 53 percent for Bevin. Undecided voters were apparently not undecided and not interested in voting for a Democrat.

But in Louisiana, Edwards was at 49 percent, 52 percent, 54 percent and 52 percent in the four public polls conducted since the primary. If those polls are accurate, he may not need any undecided voters to win.

Vitter and Republicans are trying to persuade voters by coupling Edwards with Obama, similar to a strategy Bevin and Republicans employed in Kentucky. But time is running short for the senator, considering early voting started over the weekend. One GOP strategist admitted the party could probably drive up Edwards’ negatives enough to win, but it might take two months, rather than two weeks.

Vitter’s challenges are enough that we're changing our rating from Leans Republican to Tossup.

But Edwards isn’t cruising to the finish line. The Democrat unveiled a blistering attack ad that explicitly reminded voters about Vitter’s connection to the “D.C. Madam.”

“David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots,” the narrator says. “Now the choice is yours.”

The ad, which will likely become part of campaign lore for years, could be seen as an act of desperation. But that is certainly not the only way to explain the tough attack.

Edwards was never supposed to win this race. The only early scenario with Vitter losing was to a fellow Republican in the runoff. For Edwards, there is little incentive to play it safe.

Beyond that, Vitter’s response ad is more indicative of a campaign in critical condition.

Multiple GOP sources conceded Edwards is running a great campaign by effectively painting himself as a conservative Democrat, in contrast to Conway’s campaign in Kentucky. But there are other key differences that might make Vitter less likely to replicate Bevin:

Some GOP strategists believe Vitter’s “very serious sin” is more crippling than Bevin’s personality clashes with party leadership and accusations of tax problems. It makes it more complicated for other Republicans to rally to his side.

  • Vitter had less than a month to unify Republicans since the jungle primary; Bevin had five months between the primary and general elections.
  • Edwards nabbed the cross-party endorsement of GOP Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who finished fourth in the primary. While it’s unlikely the primary supporters of Republicans Dardenne and Scott Angelle (the third place primary finisher) will flock to Edwards, Vitter’s sin might be enough incentive for them to stay home.
  • Bevin benefited from being a political outsider and a businessman at a time when people hold politicians and government in low regard. Vitter has been in office for more than 20 years.

There is still a chance Vitter pulls off a victory later this month. An infamous Democratic poll showed the senator up by just 3 points to Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon in the final days of the 2010 Senate election. Vitter won re-election by 19 points. That polling, combined with the Kentucky result, makes it unwise to move Louisiana any further than the Tossup rating.

Edwards is in a strong position with fewer than two weeks to go. But should he lose, Democrats may blame the negative ad, when the cause would more likely be Obama’s unpopularity and more evidence of the purge of Democratic elected officials in the South.