When you're 20 points behind with only three weeks left in a bitterly contested statewide election, what do you do? If you're Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter running for governor of Louisiana, you double down on the strategy that got you there in the first place.
Sound crazy? Don't laugh — it just might work.
Coming out of the Oct. 24 primary, state Rep. John Bel Edwards had momentum. He led Vitter by 17 percentage points, finishing with 40 percent of the vote to Vitter's 23 percent. Three early runoff polls had Democrat Edwards 12 to 20 points ahead of Republican Vitter.
Also in Week One of the Nov. 21 runoff, Edwards got a big endorsement from the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association. The Spygate scandal was back in the news, raising renewed concerns about Vitter's political black ops.
But Week Two showcased Vitter's fundraising advantage. He doubled down on his racially charged anti-Obama TV ads — ignoring criticism from sheriffs who say Vitter is lying about Edwards' record. By the end of last week, Vitter's strategy came into sharp focus: He's writing off black votes and betting the house that 70 percent of Louisiana's white voters hate President Barack Obama more than they dislike or distrust David Vitter.
Fear and anger have long been favorite arrows in Vitter's political quiver. As the four-week runoff neared the halfway mark, they became his only weapons.
With millions behind his message, Vitter hopes to change the runoff narrative from one of Edwards' West Point credentials, big endorsements and political momentum — and Vitter's scandals and divisiveness — to one based on what political scientists call "the fundamentals" of Southern politics. He's counting on conservative whites to do what they almost always do: vote for the conservative guy, even if they think he's a jerk (or worse).
That's what happened last week in Kentucky, where tea party Republican Matt Bevin upset Democrat Jack Conway, who led in most polls. The Kentucky electorate, however, is barely 8 percent black; Louisiana's is more than 31 percent black. And Conway's lead in the polls was only 5 to 8 points, not 18 to 20. Louisiana ain't Kentucky, but Vitter figures white people are white people wherever they live — as long as it's in the South. We'll see.
For his part, Edwards continued to rack up key endorsements, most notably that of Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who finished fourth in the primary with 15 percent of the vote. Dardenne's decision to cross party lines was a classic example of what grabs headlines — "man bites dog."
Vitter countered by announcing support from the House Republican Caucus, which was more like "dog bites man." Republicans, after all, are supposed to endorse Republicans. Ditto for Vitter's endorsement from Republican former Gov. Mike Foster, who last ran for office in 1999. That was more like "old dog bites man."
Dardenne's endorsement matters for other reasons. It could pave the way for more Republicans to endorse Edwards, and it reinforces early polls that showed nearly half of Dardenne's voters are already backing the Democrat from Amite. Gumbo PAC, which supports Edwards, quickly followed with a TV ad featuring four GOP voters — not politicians — each saying why he or she "will not vote for David Vitter." The reasons: hypocrisy, lies and cheating. The aim is to make Vitter, not Obama, the bogeyman.
All eyes are now on Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, who finished third in the primary with 19 percent. He, too, cannot stand Vitter. So far he seems inclined to sit this one out — and possibly run against Vitter for the Senate next year. He would relish a rematch against the man who labeled him "Sinkhole Scott."
Edwards' next move could highlight law enforcement officials, particularly Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, whose office is handling the Spygate investigation. Normand has held back his public support of Edwards as his deputies unravel a tangled web of Vitter-backed spying on private citizens.
Week Two closed out with more troubling news for Vitter. WWL-TV investigative reporter David Hammer and Vanishing Earth, an environmental blog by Jonathan Henderson of New Orleans, revealed that Vitter intervened heavy-handedly on behalf of Helis Oil and Gas Co. in St. Tammany Parish's fracking controversy. Helis wants to drill near a residential community, and many residents loudly oppose the project.
Hammer and Henderson exposed Vitter's April 16 letter threatening two top Army Corps of Engineers officials with the senator's opposition to "the transition or promotion of new leadership" unless the Corps approved certain projects — including Helis' proposed well. Three weeks later, on May 8, Helis Oil and Gas contributed $5,000 to Vitter's campaign, as did Helis CEO David Kerstein. In June, the Corps issued the permit. The matter is tied up in court.
Vitter is a longtime supporter of oil and gas interests, but his letter reeks of ham-fisted intimidation — which critics say is just a hint of how Vitter would govern.
Vitter cannot afford to lose votes in the GOP stronghold of St. Tammany. Early voting continues through Saturday, Nov. 14. In the final two weeks of the runoff, voters will choose a narrative — and a governor.