Runoff Rumblings

Rep. Vitter Could Be Close to 50 Percent in Louisiana Senate Primary

Posted September 20, 2004 at 5:50pm

With Rep. David Vitter (R-La.) cresting 40 percent in two recent polls, the possibility that he could win the open Louisiana Senate seat outright in November — and avoid a December runoff — has suddenly emerged as a hot topic in national political circles.

To do so, Vitter would need to win 50 percent of the vote in the state’s Nov. 2 open primary against three Democrats: Rep. Chris John, state Treasurer John Kennedy and state Rep. Arthur Morrell.

Republicans sought to throw cold water on that scenario Monday, suggesting that Democrats are behind the talk that Vitter could prevail without a runoff, in an effort to make him seem weaker in the latter contest.

“We are expecting and preparing for a runoff,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen. “We know that David Vitter is doing the same and is going to be well-positioned on Nov. 3 no matter who emerges from the Democratic side.”

Vitter’s campaign aides, too, emphasized they are not veering from their blueprint to win the race in a Dec. 4 runoff. “We got a game plan to get us to 50.1 percent on Dec. 4,” said Vitter spokesman Mac Abrahms.

John campaign manager Scott Arceneaux said, however, that Vitter’s strength to this point has complicated the Democratic candidates’ game plan by forcing them to keep an eye on Vitter to ensure he stays under 50 percent while also seeking to become the choice of their party.

John is the favorite of national Democrats but has been running about even with Kennedy in most recent polls.

“We do have to look both ways and worry about both the left and the right,” admitted Arceneaux. “Because that is a difficult thing to do we are just concentrating on running Chris’ race.”

Arceneaux added, however, that the prospect of Vitter topping 50 percent in the primary is “very remote.”

While even the most optimistic GOP strategists admit that Vitter winning outright on the first ballot is a long shot, they believe that a strong showing by President Bush on Election Day coupled with further infighting between John and Kennedy could catapult Vitter into the Senate.

The “72 Hour Program,” the highly touted turnout operation first used by Republicans in 2002, will be fully funded on Nov. 2 in Louisiana according to GOP strategists, and that get-out-the-vote effort is likely to aid Vitter.

The NRSC has not yet bought any television time in Louisiana but is actively considering spending coordinated campaign dollars in the state prior to Nov. 2 to allow Vitter to conserve resources for the runoff, sources confirmed Monday.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has made a buy for the final two weeks leading up to the primary to run independent expenditure ads on John’s behalf.

Recent polling has shown that Vitter continues to gain support while John and Kennedy seem to be treading water.

A late August survey by Verne Kennedy put Vitter at 42 percent to 19 percent for Kennedy and 16 percent for John. Morrell received 3 percent.

A poll done for John’s campaign in mid-August also put Vitter at 42 percent with John taking 21 percent and Kennedy 15 percent. Morrell received 3 percent support.

Despite his leads in both polls and fundraising, recent history is against Vitter. The last two competitive statewide races in Louisiana have ended in runoffs.

Democrats were confident early in the 2002 cycle that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) could avoid a runoff but watched as national Republicans urged GOP candidates to enter the race in hopes of splitting the vote.

The strategy worked, as Landrieu took 46 percent in the primary while then-state elections chief Suzanne Haik Terrell (R), who was endorsed by the NRSC, received 27 percent.

Landrieu held off Terrell 52 percent to 48 percent in the December runoff.

Last year, former Health and Human Services Department official Bobby Jindal (R) received nearly every major GOP endorsement in his race for governor and led the crowded primary field, but still finished 17 points away from winning the race outright. He lost the runoff a month later to then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) 52 percent to 48 percent.

A larger historical hurdle for Vitter is that Louisiana is the only state in the nation to never have sent a Republican to the Senate since Reconstruction.

This year’s Senate race has yet to become engaged as each of the three major candidates have largely focused on fundraising and getting themselves better known statewide.

The race had been further overshadowed by state elections Saturday — including a ballot measure on gay marriage — that took up “a lot of oxygen,” according to Kennedy campaign manager Jason Redmond.

On the money front, Vitter is the clear leader.

He banked $3.2 million as of July 17; John had $2.4 million on hand at that time, Kennedy had $949,000 in the bank. Morrell’s war chest stood at just $11,000.

Vitter, John and Kennedy are now all on television with ads outlining their background.

“Everybody is doing the same thing right now,” Redmond said.

None of the three leading candidates has attacked another on television, and even at the first debate of the race on Sunday night, the tone was largely pleasant.

“In our paid communication we aren’t talking about either of them,” confirmed Arceneaux. “When we are out on the stump, the focus is more about introducing people to Chris.”

Redmond echoed that sentiment, saying that “we are just sticking to our message right now.”

John has attempted throughout the contest to portray himself as the only Democrat capable of winning a runoff against Vitter.

In addition to the DSCC, he has been endorsed by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who is leaving the seat after three terms.

Kennedy has run a stronger-than-expected race to this point and is seen as the preferred candidate of the black community. Morrell, who is black, has not been as much of a factor as many Democrats originally anticipated.