Six months ago, most observers of Louisiana politics would have argued that Republican Sen. David Vitter would not hit the 50 percent of the vote he needed in Saturday’s all-party primary to avoid a November 21 run-off, but that the run-off would simply be a formality. As evidence, they would point to last year’s run-off between then-GOP U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy and then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
As Saturday’s election drew closer, it became apparent that Vitter was not in an especially strong position. There were two other credible Republicans in the race, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, both of whom presented more than respectable alternatives to voters who didn’t want to vote for Vitter. The lone Democrat – state House Minority Leader John Bel Edwards – was largely ignored by the three Republicans until the last month of the race.
Edwards consolidated the Democratic vote, finishing first with 40 percent. Vitter finished second (and finish first among the Republicans), earning the other run-off spot, but he got just 23 percent of the vote, while Angelle took 19 percent and Dardenne got 15 percent. Five minor candidates split the remaining 3 percent. To put it in some perspective, Republicans secured 57 percent of the vote cast on Saturday, yet 34 percent voted for a Republican candidate other than Vitter. Vitter is a prolific fundraiser and has been a political force in the state. At the same time, he has some vulnerabilities that seem to carry more weight with voters than we would have anticipated. The resurrection of the 2007 prostitution scandal is chief among them. Vitter faced voters in 2010 and won that race easily, leading us to believe that the scandal had already been litigated. Anti-Vitter super PACs raised the scandal again in television ads and the scandal seems to have resonated with voters. It didn’t help that a New Orleans prostitute who claimed in 2007 to have had a relationship with Vitter – one that he has always denied – came forth with a new version of their relationship that included the allegation that he got her pregnant and asked her to get an abortion. While the prostitute’s allegations seem sketchy, voters may well believe them.
The fact that Vitter isn’t currently part of state government or an ally of GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is very unpopular even among Republicans, was also thought to be an asset. Instead, being a member of a more unpopular U.S. Congress could very well be a bigger liability. Finally, despite the well-publicized rift between Vitter and Jindal, the argument that electing Vitter would simply be a continuation of Jindal’s polices seemed to stick.
When we last wrote about this race in October, we called a Vitter-Edwards run-off inevitable, but argued that it was hard to see a path to victory for Edwards (see: Landrieu, Mary). However, a look at the results from Saturday night and the wisdom of Bob Mann, who holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU and worked for Democratic U.S. Sens. J. Bennett Johnston and John Breaux and Gov. Kathleen Blanco, convinces us that Edwards does have a path to victory albeit a narrow one. There are two ways that Edwards can cobble together the 50 percent plus one he needs to win. First, he starts at 40 percent, although Mann argues that it is more like 43 percent or 44 percent because he believes that some Democrats supported a Republican for a variety of reasons and will come home in a run-off. This means that Edwards has to get 25 percent to 30 percent of the Republican vote to win. Angelle and Dardenne will help in this regard since neither plans to endorse Vitter. That doesn’t mean that they will endorse Edwards, but it is clear that Republicans will not be unified going into the run-off and there won’t be enough other contests on the run-off ballot to force unity “for the good of the party.”
It’s not unrealistic to believe that Edwards can appeal to Republicans. He is pro-life, supports gun rights, and opposes Common Core, a huge issue in the state. It doesn’t hurt that he is a graduate of West Point and did eight years of active duty as an Army Ranger.
According to Mann, another way Edwards can put together a winning coalition is to increase turnout among African Americans. Turnout overall was near record lows at 38 percent. In heavily African-American Orleans Parish, it was just 32 percent. The more Democrats can increase African-American turnout, the fewer Republican votes Edwards needs.
Going into the run-off, Edwards has some advantages. First, he has momentum. He is also likely to get help from the Democratic Governors Association, which has been sitting on the sidelines until it became evident that the race is winnable. And, the same super PACs that attacked Vitter during the first phase of the campaign are likely to keep up their effort, and perhaps ratchet it up a notch or two.
At the same time, Edwards is going to come under relentless attack from Vitter and the super PAC supporting his candidacy. Every effort will be made to attach him to President Obama, who is unpopular in the state. This was Sen. Landrieu’s undoing last year, but Edwards isn’t as good a target. Unlike Landrieu, he has never cast a vote on the President’s agenda. At the same time, Edwards is not nearly as well known or well defined as Vitter is so there is room for his negatives to increase. Vitter is not without his advantages as well. He starts the run-off considerably better financed than Edwards given that he has a well-funded super PAC. The Republican Governors Association, which aired ads attacking Edwards in October, is likely to continue that effort. And, for better or worse, Vitter is pretty well defined. Voters’ feelings about him are pretty solidified and they aren’t likely to hear much – positive or negative – in the next month to change their minds. Finally, Louisiana has turned solidly red. No Democrat has won statewide office since Landrieu won a re-election bid in 2008.
There are plenty of observers of Louisiana politics who have a hard time believing that a Democrat has a real shot at winning the run-off. As Louisiana native Charlie Cook put it, “… the skepticism about any Democrat winning, even with these extraordinary circumstances, is almost theological rather than logical. It's just hard for us to believe that a Democrat can win, no matter the evidence to the contrary.”
The skepticism is understandable, but the reality remains that this has become a much more competitive race than anyone would have predicted six months ago. It moves to the Toss Up column.
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