National Republicans appear to think Sen. David Vitter is headed for a runoff with his top Democratic rival in the Louisiana gubernatorial race and polls show that's a pretty safe bet.
On Thursday, the Republican Governors Association announced a new television commercial targeting Vitter’s chief Democratic rival, state Rep. John Bel Edwards. A spokesman for the group told Roll Call earlier this month it would look at getting involved in the race only “if it advances to a Republican versus Democrat runoff."
A series of polls show the race coming down to a showdown between Vitter and Edwards. And the latest, released Wednesday by KSLA News 12/Raycom Media, showed Vitter trailing Edwards in a hypothetical November runoff.
The RGA's TV campaign follows its decision to launch a digital campaign and another television spot ahead of the Oct. 24 election.
RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said the group wants to make sure Louisiana voters "were aware of the real John Bel Edwards."
"The real Edwards is an Obama liberal who wants to raise taxes on hard-working Louisiana families," Thompson said.
The television spot — which slams Edwards in what is essentially a four-way race between Vitter, Edwards and two other Republicans — is part of a two-week, $1 million investment in the Pelican State that came just a couple of weeks after the RGA pulled ads in Kentucky, where Republican businessman Matt Bevin is trailing Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway in the race to replace outgoing Gov. Steven L. Beshear, a Democrat.
“That the RGA cut and run in Kentucky and jumped here before we even got to the runoff is telling,” said Beau Tidwell, a spokesman for the Louisiana Democratic Party. “It should be a big red flag that they know Vitter is fumbling and struggling to close.”
Vitter has campaigned and ran his own television ads attacking his opponents, but has been mostly absent from uncontrolled environments like the debate stage. On Thursday night, Vitter made only his second appearance in the five debates so far, but did so in front of no audience and without speaking to reporters after. Instead, he took a swipe at Edwards and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, his top Republican rivals. Vitter told the debate moderators , "Baton Rouge is broken and dysfunctional, and there are no leaders there."
Just as he faced attacks from his opponents in the post-debate spin room, Vitter has been the main target of all three of his major rivals for much of the race. As the presumed front-runner — the man whose election was seen by some as inevitable when he launched his campaign — Vitter was a natural target, and the piling on has taken a toll on his campaign.
According to other polls that have been made public , Vitter would be essentially tied with Edwards in the first round of voting, while the two other top Republicans Dardenne and Angelle — each earned about 15 percent support from those surveyed.
More than one-third of voters have told pollsters they are still undecided. But if the race goes to a second round — and both Democratic and Republican operatives in Louisiana believe it will — the same polls, along with the one released Wednesday, suggest Vitter would enter the race way behind.
An early campaign to diminish Edwards before the runoff period could serve two purposes, said one Republican operative with knowledge of Louisiana. It could either chip away at the Democrat's favorability among voters and and give Vitter an early start, or, in a much less likely scenario, it could wipe out Edwards entirely and let two Republicans duke it out in the runoff — a win-win for the party hoping to hold the seat as Gov. Bobby Jindal leaves office.
The anti-Obama tactic Republicans have deployed against Edwards has worked in races up and down the ballot since 2010 and is not unlike one used in 2014 in Louisiana. Then-Rep. Bill Cassidy successfully tied Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu to the president and beat her in the December runoff.
“John Bel is a much different target than she was, and a lot harder to paint with that brush,” Tidwell said.
Correction 1:10 p.m. A previous version of this article misstated when the runoff would take place. The runoff would be in November.
Correction October 18, 5 a.m. A previous version of this article misidentified Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway.
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