Vitter’s Primary Performance Prompts Rating Change in Louisiana

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 27, 2015 · 10:30 AM EDT

Louisiana has transitioned to a Republican state, but GOP Sen. David Vitter will test the political gravity of the Pelican State in next month’s gubernatorial runoff.

Vitter was regarded as the front-runner to replace presidential candidate/current Gov. Bobby Jindal for much of the cycle, but the senator’s consistently poor performance in the polls and his showing in Saturday’s all-party primary has some Republicans very concerned that Vitter could let the governorship slip into Democratic hands.

It was no surprise that state House Minority Leader John Bel Edwards finished first, with 40 percent, considering he was the only legitimate Democratic candidate in the race. But Vitter’s second-place showing (23 percent) didn’t inspire much confidence that he can round up enough Republican voters to win the general election on Nov 21.

Two other Republicans, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle (19 percent) and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (15 percent), finished third and fourth, and it’s unclear how much effort the pair will invest in helping Vitter win.

The senator was a polarizing figure within his own party before this election, and more public discussion about his extramarital affair with a prostitute (from nearly a decade ago) during this race makes it complicated for Republicans to stick their necks out for him.

Vitter has liabilities, but it’s still a tall task for Edwards to grow his vote over 50 percent. For example, in the 2014 Senate race, Democratic incumbent Mary L. Landrieu received 42 percent in the initial primary and 44 percent in the runoff. Up to this point, Edwards has been able to run as a culturally conservative Democrat with a limited number of negative ads against him. But Republicans have plenty of research to connect him to President Barack Obama, whose job approval rating sits in the low to mid-30s in the state.

Edwards does have the advantage of going against Vitter, who is uniquely unpopular. Republican Bill Cassidy, who defeated Landrieu, was a broadly acceptable Republican without Vitter’s baggage and grew his share of the vote from 41 percent in the primary to 56 percent in the runoff.

There are plenty of unanswered questions, including how much money the Republican Governors Association is willing to keep sinking into the race and if the Democratic Governors Association sees enough of an opportunity to spend money on television ads.

We’re changing our rating from Favored Republican to Leans Republican.

The situation in Louisiana is complicated by the fact that Vitter is up for re-election this cycle.

If he wins, Vitter would get to appoint his replacement until the regular elections next year. But if he loses the gubernatorial race this fall, it’s not clear if Vitter would run for re-election, or what would happen if he did.

The last time a sitting senator ran for governor in the middle of a term was when Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas ran for governor in 2010 and lost the primary to Gov. Rick Perry, 51 percent to 30 percent, in a whopping defeat. But Hutchison had already decided not to seek re-election to the Senate.

Republicans might be better off defending an open senate seat in a presidential year, rather than Vitter running for re-election, in a state where Obama received 41 percent and 40 percent in his last two elections. But multiple Republicans are itching to run for the seat.