When Sen. David Vitter launched his campaign to become Louisiana’s 56th governor last January, he was viewed by some as “the inevitable governor ” — as close to a front-runner as one can be in the state’s “jungle primary.”
But as voters prepare to head to the polls on Oct. 24, that shine of inevitability has mostly disappeared. Two polls released in the past week — one by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling , the other by The Advocate/WWL-TV — have Vitter essentially tied with state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat. Both had support in the 20 percent range. In both polls, the two other Republicans in the race, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, take about 15 percent of the vote.
At a debate Thursday evening in New Orleans — the first of at least two televised debates in which the senator planned to participate — Vitter's Republican opponents focused their fire on him. Dardenne, for example, called Vitter a "liar," while Angelle called him "Senator Pinocchio," accusing him of misleading voters about his positions.
Vitter "has not only been wrong on fornication, he’s been wrong on taxation and he’s been wrong on education," Angelle said, alluding to Vitter's 2007 prostitution scandal that has become an issue in the race, as well as his positions on such issues as taxes and his past support for Common Core education standards.
As Angelle and Dardenne have increased their share in the polls, Vitter has punched downward, releasing two television ads criticizing them individually. One accused Dardenne of being pro-tax and pro-abortion, and another tried to tie Angelle to President Barack Obama.
As the race stands, it is unlikely that any candidate could take more than 50 percent of the vote on Election Day, meaning a Nov. 21 runoff election between the top two candidates is probable. Both polls suggest Vitter is likely to be in that runoff, and both suggest he will face a big hurdle once he is there.
The Advocate’s poll showed that in the head-to-head challenges he would face in a runoff, Vitter trailed all three of his major opponents, including Edwards by 4 percent.
The race has taken a remarkable turn in just a year. When it started , PPP found Vitter led Edwards, 50 percent to 32 percent, in the head-to-head runoff.
Vitter's shakiness in the polls prompted the the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call to move the race Friday from Safe Republican to Republican Favored.
“Everyone knows races in Louisiana tend to materialize late," said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.
If Vitter is victorious and does move to the runoff, another competitiveness factor could emerge: the air support both sides might get from allies in Washington. The Republican Governors Association pulled its television ads from Kentucky this week, where Republican Matt Bevin is trailing the state’s Democratic attorney general, Pat Conway — potentially freeing up a pot of money to be used in the Pelican State.
“We are keeping a close eye on the Louisiana governor’s race, and it is possible the RGA takes a look at becoming involved if it advances to a Republican versus Democrat runoff,” said Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the RGA. “There are multiple Republican candidates running in the primary, and any of them would be a much more competent and effective governor than John Bel Edwards.”
Meanwhile, national Democrats are are focused heavily on Kentucky's contest, where their candidate is leading in the polls ahead of November's election. But, Leopold said the DGA is "closely monitoring recent developments" in Louisiana as the race moves forward and does see a chance for it to move in if Edwards ends up in the runoff.
"Polling has shown significant movement over recent weeks, and there will be more movement to come,” he said. “We remain in close contact with the Edwards campaign and Louisiana Democrats.”