Voters’ Willingness to Overlook Vitter’s Foibles Vexes Democrats

Posted October 24, 2010 at 5:38pm

NEW ORLEANS — In July 2007, when Sen. David Vitter acknowledged a “very serious sin” in his past during the D.C. Madam prostitution scandal, many pundits wrote the Louisiana Republican’s political obituary.

After all, Vitter was one of the country’s fiercest social conservatives who was elected to Congress in 1999 after former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) was forced to step down as the result of his own adultery scandal.

No one, including most Republicans, believed Vitter could survive charges of hypocrisy that would surely come as part of a re-election campaign.

But with only nine days left before Election Day — and despite the best efforts of his Democratic opponent, Rep. Charlie Melancon, to make Vitter’s personal problems a defining issue — the first-term Senator appears headed to a relatively comfortable re-election victory.

Public polling shows Vitter well ahead of Melancon, although Democrats say their internal numbers paint a tighter picture of the race.

But if Vitter does win another term, as most polls suggest, he will have politically survived a controversy that in many states would have been a death blow.

Vitter’s campaign declined to comment on the issue. But Republicans in the state argued it is simply a matter of the public understanding the controversy and, after three years, moving on.

“The public knows about it, digested it and have moved on,” a Louisiana GOP operative said.

In an interview with Roll Call following a news conference here to talk about Vitter’s connections to BP, a clearly frustrated Melancon acknowledged that Vitter’s problems have not caught on with the public as much as Democrats expected they would.

“Its an embarrassment. … We are the laughingstock because people in Washington know we have David Vitter up there. He’s ineffective, he’s immoral, he’s ethically challenged and he’s morally bankrupt,” Melancon said.

Republicans also said Vitter has been helped by President Barack Obama’s unpopularity in the state and the fact that the GOP has been able to successfully tie Melancon to the administration.

“Melancon knows his record in lock step with Obama is toxic here in Louisiana, so he runs from it and takes this holier-than-thou approach,” the state operative said. “Every time Melancon tries to attack with this stuff, he has never moved anywhere in the polls.”

Republicans also privately speculate that the lack of apparent interest in Vitter’s dalliances may be tied to the state’s long tradition of not caring about its politicians’ ethical challenges. After all, former Gov. Earl Long (D) was known to associate with the famous exotic dancer Blaze Starr, while state lawmakers attempted to impeach former Sen. Huey Long (D) while he was governor.

Four-time Gov. Edwin Edwards (D), who left office in 1996, won his last race against former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke based in part on an infamous campaign slogan, “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important.”

For their part, Democrats privately complain that the state’s media have not been as aggressive in reporting on the scandal as they had hoped. “The press here is very timid,” said one Democratic operative familiar with the situation in the state.

Democrats also say Vitter’s decision to limit his public exposure hasn’t helped their efforts. For instance, while Melancon over the last several weeks has done dozens of the standard bingo hall meet and greets that are the hallmark of retail politics, Vitter has been more careful in choosing his appearances, often appearing with friendly groups of Republican women or local young Republican organizations.

Vitter’s position of strength in the race comes despite the best efforts of Democrats to make his relationship with women a central issue. Melancon has run a number of campaign ads that either directly reference the D.C. Madam scandal or include references to his position on women’s rights.

Vitter’s adultery has become the center point of Melancon’s campaign against the incumbent, with the Congressman raising the issue even at events that are related to other topics.

During Melancon’s news conference about Vitter and BP earlier this month, the subject of the Republican’s personal life eventually came up.

“He called on President Clinton to step down for being a sinner and lying, he called on Bob Livingston to step down for being a sinner and lying,” Melancon told local reporters. “Then he lied, broke the law, which means he couldn’t be a fireman … he couldn’t be a schoolteacher, he couldn’t work for a municipality, he couldn’t hold an everyday job, but he’s our U.S. Senator? There’s something wrong with that.”

When asked afterward why he believes Vitter still enjoys fairly strong support throughout the state, Melancon argued some of it may be partisan politics at its worst.

“Some people, because he is a Republican, because he isn’t a Democrat, because of what, I don’t know,” have decided the scandal is not an issue, Melancon said.

However, he said he remains hopeful that the public will come around and argues that during campaign stops he has seen anecdotal evidence that the issue is resonating.

“We’re starting to feel it now traveling around the state,” Melancon said. “We’re feeling an optimism. People are starting to show up who say I wasn’t going to vote for you before, but then I started to look at the character of the individuals rather than the party they belong to.”