For a number of ambitious Republicans in Louisiana, a whole lot hinges on the state’s gubernatorial election later this year — and Sen. David Vitter.
Vitter is one of four candidates facing off in the Pelican State’s “jungle primary” in October. He will be up against two other Republicans and one Democrat in a race that, unless a single candidate gets half the vote, would advance the two top candidates to a runoff in late November. If he ultimately emerges as the victor — and that’s still an "if"— a brand new set of ifs would arise and leave politicians at several levels in Louisiana stuck watching and waiting.
Vitter has not said whether he would resign immediately and let outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal pick his replacement, or wait to vacate the seat at the same time he is sworn in as governor. But it's no secret Vitter's relationship with the two-term governor is strained: Jindal has refused to endorse Vitter, and Vitter has criticized the state's "broken fiscal policy " under Jindal's watch.
Jason P. Doré, the executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party, said, “Everyone down here has operated under the assumption Vitter would appoint his own replacement.”
Under that scenario, a big domino could fall. Would a Gov. Vitter pick a placeholder to fill out the rest of his term until January 2017 while Republicans fight in a primary? Or would he comb through the field of Republicans who have been laying the groundwork to run, have instant incumbent status and support from the party’s infrastructure, such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee?
While Vitter’s job has yet to be posted, a number of Republicans are jumping in line to make clear their interest in his Senate seat, which is rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call.
Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., said recently he is interested in the seat if it opens up, but cautioned supporters back home in Louisiana that he wants to be careful to not “get ahead of the governor’s race.” Rep. John Fleming, told CQ Roll Call in December he was “very interested in the race.” Their shadow campaigns have resulted in something of an arms race measured not in terms of weapons, but cash. Boustany raised $715,000 in the second quarter this year, which a campaign aide said was just short of his high-water mark in his other campaigns. Fleming’s campaign reported adding $742,000 to its account during the same time period – including a $525,000 loan from Fleming – and ended the quarter with $2.1 million on hand.
If either of them were to be appointed to the seat, it would knock over yet another domino — opening up their safe House seats to another tier of Republicans looking for promotions. But even that is a big “if,” too. Boustany and Fleming are not the only candidates who are floating their names.
John Kennedy, the Louisiana state treasurer who has played in statewide politics for two decades, is not exactly tiptoeing around the idea of entering a race to replace Vitter in the Senate.
Kennedy has nearly $3.5 million in his state campaign account. And while it cannot be transferred to a federal committee, he could easily spend it this year as he runs for re-election. Plus, the money could make its way to a super PAC, such as the one a longtime Kennedy aide founded this spring.
While all of them are eyeing the race publicly, the reality is their constituency could be just one person — Vitter — and they all have been currying favor and staying out of his way in his bid for governor.
If Vitter were to appoint a “placeholder,” some Louisiana Republicans believe he might consider naming his chief of staff, Kyle Ruckert, to fill the remaining part of his term until January 2017, when whichever victorious 2016 candidate would take office.
A Vitter aide said the senator was focused on his gubernatorial race and has not given any thought to whom he might pick as his replacement or the candidates in the wings. While both Boustany, who was not always close to Vitter, and Fleming have lent their support to his campaign, the conversation about the potential Senate seat is a long way away, the aide said.
Almost all of the recent polling in the governor’s race points to a runoff between Vitter and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, said Robert Mann, a former Democratic operative and Louisiana political historian who is a professor at Louisiana State University.
“There are too many Republicans in the race fighting over 55 percent of the electorate,” he said, noting the candidacies of Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. “If you add the two others together, they still don’t exceed what Edwards is likely to get. I’m not sure one of them dropping out would make much difference.”
Barring an Edwards implosion or an unlikely Angelle or Dardenne surge, Mann said Vitter’s biggest hurdle right now looks to be a potentially vicious runoff battle, where Democrats and a self-described “non-partisan” super PAC led by Trey Ourso, the former executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party, could try to make the story of Vitter’s involvement with a prostitution ring stick in a way it did not before.
Gumbo PAC says on its website its goal is to provide a “clearinghouse of information focused on educating Louisiana voters about U.S. Senator David Vitter's disgraceful public record.”
The prostitution allegations first quietly emerged in 2002 as Vitter, then a member of the House, was preparing his first run for governor. But when Louisiana Weekly published a report alleging he was involved with a Louisiana-based prostitution ring, he canceled his plans and ran successfully for re-election.
Although the prostitution allegations were raised again in his 2004 Senate campaign, they failed to keep him from winning the seat.
But three years later, when Vitter’s phone number was listed on a list of numbers that were frequently in contact with the so-called D.C. Madam, Vitter acknowledged "a very serious sin" and asked for forgiveness. In 2010, voters gave it to him — re-electing him with well over a majority of the vote.
So far, the issue has yet to damage him politically. But this time, Louisiana observers say it could be hurting him with women. Mann said Vitter’s numbers with women, particularly Republicans, show vulnerability, pointing to a Southern Media and Opinion Research poll that showed a 16-point gap between white men and white women.
“If this super PAC or Edwards can get the money to tell a story, there’s an argument that he could be in trouble,” he said. But, he said of the race, “I still believe it is Vitter’s to lose."
Clarification July 17, 12:10 p.m. An earlier version of this story misstated how much of Fleming's campaign cash on hand was from donations.