Louisiana Governor's Race Tightens in Final Days

The election has been less about issues and more about personalities -- but not always the candidates'.

Unlike his predecessor, Gov. John Bel Edwards has backed the proposed Real ID bill.
(AP/Gerald Herbert)
It's too soon to rule David Vitter out.

The Republican, a sitting U.S. senator, has trailed badly in the polls in the Louisiana governor's race, which takes place on Saturday. Nevertheless, he has a cash and advertising advantage and may have momentum in the late stages against his Democratic opponent, state Rep. John Bel Edwards.

"Vitter's inching closer and close to being inside the margin of error," said Jeremy Alford, publisher of the newsletter LaPolitics. "If that happens, it could be a long night on Saturday."

A runoff between Vitter and Edwards seemed likely all year. The two top finishers, regardless of party, proceed to a runoff in Louisiana when no one wins an outright majority in the primary. As the only Democrat in the race, Edwards was always bound to be included against the top Republican to come out of a divided GOP field.

But even Democrats didn't expect Edwards to have a real chance until late in the game in a conservative state. Last year, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu got trounced in a runoff, once she had to face a single Republican candidate.

Vitter enjoyed enormous advantages in fundraising other Republican candidates. He avoided debates and other direct confrontations with his opponents. But the other Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and former Lt. Gov Scott Angelle, went after Vitter. In particular, they criticized him for his role in a 2007 prostitution scandal that Vitter had never fully addressed. (Dardenne has since endorsed Edwards, while Angelle has remained neutral.)

"Edwards never would have succeeded the way he has had not the other major Republican candidates been complicit by also making the contest one about personalities rather than issues," said Jeffrey Sadow, a political scientist at Louisiana State University at Shreveport. "When Vitter attacked on minor ideological differences, they responded with attacks on his character, validating Edwards' approach and further deemphasizing ideology in the contest."

The attacks on his character may be working, however. After avoiding the topic for years, Vitter was forced recently to speak in personal terms about the prostitution scandal over the past couple of weeks. The so-called D.C. Madam revealed back in 2007 that Vitter's number was included in her phone records. Shortly thereafter, another madam in New Orleans said Vitter had been a client of her brothel. Vitter released a statement saying he had committed "a very serious sin in my past" but described it as a private matter for which he would seek forgiveness from his wife and from God, but would not discuss further publicly. Until this campaign, he has avoided questions about the matter, even during his 2010 Senate re-election bid.

During the campaign's final debate on Monday, Vitter talked about receiving forgiveness from his family as the most important event in his life. He has also showcased his family in late advertising designed to soften his image. At the same time, though, Vitter has capitalized on the recent terrorist attacks in Paris to appeal to scared voters voters and connect his opponent to the president. "John Bel Edwards has pledged to work with Obama to bring Syrian refugees to Louisiana," a narrator says in a new Vitter ad.


U.S. Sen. David Vitter speaks to reporters alongside his wife. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

"We're seeing Vitter kind of embrace these red-meat conservative issues and really making a go at this Syrian refugee issue," Alford said. "Just anecdotally, I think it's really working for him."

But Vitter barely managed to make it out of the primary.

On the Democratic side, Edwards worked to consolidate support from black voters, while also appealing to conservative whites as a West Point graduate who opposes abortion and gun control.

"John Bel Edwards has made strong alliances with the black community, black Democrats who know how to turn out the vote in New Orleans and Baton Rouge," said Gary Clark, a political scientist at Dillard University in New Orleans.

Edwards also has the support of the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association and a fair number of the "old courthouse crowd" -- the county clerks and parish presidents who used to run the state.

But Clark and other observers say Vitter could still win.

Since the runoff, Edwards has had a consistent lead in polls, most of which have shown him ahead by double digits. The numbers have been tightening, however, according to some surveys.

"If there were another month to go, Vitter certainly would win," Sadow said. "But there's only a few days, so we'll have to see."

Even as he tries to link Edwards to Obama, Vitter has had a hard time distancing himself from Bobby Jindal, the highly unpopular outgoing Republican governor who dropped his presidential bid on Tuesday.

"Jindal is a factor in this race," Alford said. "The really interesting thing about this race is that it's been about a handful of people that aren't even on the ballot, including Jindal and Obama."

In the end, what may matter most is whether Vitter can triumph over attacks on his character about a scandal that's almost a decade old.

"The character issue with Sen. Vitter has played a very significant role in the runoff," said Greg Rigamer, a Louisiana political consultant who has worked with both parties. "It sells poorly with some demographics -- enough to coalesce the African American vote and enough of the white vote to put you over the top. For Sen. Vitter to overtake John Bel is a heavy lift at this point."

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.