Louisiana Governor: Does David Vitter Have Something to Worry About?

by Stuart Rothenberg September 2, 2015 · 9:57 AM EDT

Two-term Republican Sen. David Vitter started his bid for Louisiana governor as a solid, if not prohibitive, favorite. But Pelican State watchers believe that Vitter’s prospects look less certain now than they did six months ago.

Does Vitter really have something to worry about? The answer to that question depends on whether you think three recent polls are close to being correct.

A March poll by Republican firm Triumph Campaigns showed Vitter and Democrat John Bel Edwards far ahead of the rest of the field in the Oct. 24 open primary. But a July 27-31 survey by Verne Kennedy’s Market Research Insight, another GOP firm, showed Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle leading with 24 percent, while Vitter drew 22 percent, Edwards received 20 percent and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne drew 13 percent. (For veteran Louisiana pollster Bernie Pinsonat’s opinion of the Triumph poll’s methodology, see here).

Insiders say that Republican firm Harper Polling also conducted a poll in the race, but the firm’s president, Brock McCleary, refused comment, saying that he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of a survey. According to knowledgeable observers, the August 1-3 automated poll showed Edwards in first place with 28 percent, Vitter running second with 26 percent, Angell a competitive third with 18 percent, and Dardenne running fourth at 11 percent.

Vitter, who has carved out an image for himself as both a conservative and a reformer, graduated from Harvard, was a Rhodes Scholar and earned a law degree from Tulane. After that, he served in the state House and U.S. House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 2004.

Vitter has won two statewide races, has a reputation as an aggressive campaigner and benefits from a huge financial advantage over his opponents. But he received a mountain of bad press following revelations in 2007 that he frequented prostitutes, and he has never had particularly good relations with his colleagues in Baton Rouge or Washington, D.C.

Dardenne, a Republican, began his career as a member of the East Baton Rouge Metropolitan Council before being elected to the state Senate in 1991. He won a special election for secretary of state in 2006 and served in that office until 2010, when he won a special election to fill the open lieutenant governor’s office. A year later, he won a full term.

Dispassionate observers describe Dardenne as well-liked and with a reputation as a penny-pincher. But the historian and poet is “very much of a Baton Rouge candidate,” who doesn’t have great appeal in North Louisiana, according to one thoughtful observer. He has about $2 million in the bank and has been slow to spend it.

The other Republican in the race — which will likely be decided in a Nov. 21 runoff, assuming that no candidate wins a majority in the October open primary — is Angelle, a one-time Democrat.

Angelle, who served as Louisiana’s secretary of Natural Resources and, briefly, as lieutenant governor in 2010, has lower name identification than Dardenne and started far back in the race. But his early television advertising has been effective, and Louisiana insiders believe that he now is a factor in the contest. One observer called him “a firecracker of a speaker.”

“Vitter remains the top dog in the Republican race, but he has competition now from Angelle,” says Jeremy Alford, editor and publisher of LaPolitics.com and LaPolitics Weekly, adding “Angelle has paid for his momentum, spending his money on early television ads. It’s a risky gamble, but it seems to have paid off, at least so far.”

The fourth candidate, Edwards, is a West Point graduate, attorney and member of the Louisiana House of Representatives since 2008. But he’s also a Democrat in a state in which Democrats are increasingly on the defensive. While state elections are very different from federal contests, especially since they occur in an off-off year, President Barack Obama remains an albatross around the necks of Democrats hoping to localize this year’s elections.

The state’s election process – a “jungle” primary followed by a possible runoff between the top two finishers, regardless of party – creates an interesting dynamic that could have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

Right now, Edwards is expected to make the runoff, since he is the lone Democrat in the contest and can count on support from the African-American community and those whites who still vote Democratic. According to exit polls, African-Americans constituted 30 percent of Senate race voters in 2014 and 24 percent in 2010.

Any Republican who is lucky enough to meet Edwards in a runoff would become a heavy favorite to become the state’s next governor. The Democrat is untested in a high profile, statewide contest, is not likely to raise enough money to be competitive and suffers from his party label.

Vitter has been drawing from the mid-20s to the mid-30s in many statewide polls. That’s a red flag for someone who has such high name recognition. If one of Vitter’s Republican opponents can sneak into the runoff, he could take advantage of the senator’s past indiscretions, particularly among white women voters.

Vitter’s ace-in-the-hole is money. Between his own campaign and the superPAC that is supporting him, the Republican has more than $7.5 million behind his bid, far more than anyone else.

But there is always a wildcard in Louisiana politics.

This year’s wildcard is named John Georges, a wealthy businessman who ran unsuccessfully for governor as an independent for governor in 2007 and as a Democrat for mayor of New Orleans in 2010.

Georges, who bought The Advocate (Baton Rouge), the state’s largest newspaper in 2013, currently says that he has no plans to enter the gubernatorial race before the filing deadline ends on Sept. 10. But, not everyone is convinced of that. According to Louisiana political guru Alford, “until he says that he will not run, or until qualification passes, he remains a wildcard.”

A Georges candidacy could divide the Democratic vote and allow two Republicans to make the runoff.

Given his resources and campaign savvy, Vitter still must be regarded as the favorite in the race. But the runoff system and accompanying dynamic create some interesting scenarios. After all, this is Louisiana — a state where, when it comes to politics, weird is merely the norm.