Like all good Louisiana Catholics, David Vitter knows when to send up a prayer for lost causes.
His state will elect a new governor Saturday, and in recent weeks the once-invincible candidate’s campaign has collapsed in spectacular fashion, raising the remarkable possibility that a Democrat could win the governor’s race. So in the race’s final moments, he has found religion: specifically, the threat of Islamic extremists lurking among the handful of Syrian refugees who have settled in Louisiana.
On Monday, Vitter aired a new ad called “ Can’t Afford ”, showing images from the aftermath of last week’s deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. In the video Vitter, currently a Republican senator, pledges that if he is elected governor, no Syrian refugees will enter Louisiana. In contrast he claims his Democratic opponent, John Bel Edwards, “has pledged to work with Obama to bring Syrian refugees to Louisiana”.
Vitter sent supporters a letter on Wednesday night that asserted President Obama is “risking the security of each and every Louisianan in our state” – with the help of Edwards.
“Senator Vitter has been a leader on this issue,” his spokesman, Luke Bolar, told the Guardian on Wednesday. “He has been warning of the dangers of a mass influx of Syrian refugees.”
But Vitter’s new focus on refugees comes at the end of a long and twisting campaign path, marked by a series of scandals that have shocked voters even in Louisiana, where scandals are de rigueur in politics.
Vitter once seemed invincible. In 2007 he refused to resign his senatorship after phone logs linked him to Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the infamous “DC Madam”. And his calculation paid off; in 2010 he handily won reelection to his Senate seat.
So entering into this year’s gubernatorial race, Vitter held what seemed like an insurmountable advantage: he enjoyed the status of two Senate terms. His campaign bank roll and Pac held $10m – more cash than his three nearest competitors combined. And Louisiana hadn’t elected a single Democrat to statewide office in seven years.
But the latest poll from the University of New Orleans shows Vitter’s campaign reduced almost to ashes. In the survey – which focused on likely voters – Vitter trails Edwards by 22 points. And one-third of conservatives say they plan to vote for the Democrat, instead of the Republican.
So how did Vitter fall so far from grace?
“It’s not one thing, it’s everything,” said University of New Orleans professor Edward Chervenak, who directed the poll. The litany starts with the current Louisiana governor. “Bobby Jindal is poisoning the Vitter campaign. Then there’s the prostitution. The spying on the sheriff. And he ran a very negative primary campaign that alienated voters on the right.”
Spy v spy
Bobby Jindal, first. Any association with Jindal, right now, is toxic in Louisiana. The governor, who just this week suspended his bid for the US presidency, is severely disliked in his home state. According to Chervenak, Jindal’s approval ratings have sunk to 20%. That’s 20% for a Republican governor in a thoroughly red state; voters want a change, and Vitter represents the current establishment.
Then, more prostitution. Vitter’s prostitution problem seemed to be buried, until it erupted with great drama in October. Edwards did not shy away from using the attention to his advantage.
A campaign ad in early November contrasted “the choice” between Edwards’ military experience and Vitter’s prostitution history, saying: “David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots.”
The prostitution issue also returned to the news cycle in October when a local blogger, Jason Berry , began posting interviews with a New Orleans prostitute who claimed Vitter had been a client for years. When he had impregnated her, she said, Vitter had pressured her to abort the baby. She refused and claims to have given birth to his child.
In the midst of these revelations, a few weeks ago, one of the most powerful sheriffs in the state, Norman Newell of Jefferson Parish, met a few friends at a coffee shop in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb. One of the friends was Danny DeNoux, a private investigator.
DeNoux, incidentally, had located the New Orleans prostitute and introduced her to Berry.
In the course of their conversation over coffee, the men noticed that at a nearby table another man seemed to be filming their conversation. When they confronted him he fled the diner, and after a 25-minute chase, the sheriff’s deputies found him in the backyard of a nearby residence, hiding behind an air-conditioning unit.
His name is Robert Frenzel, and the sheriff booked him on charges of criminal mischief. Frenzel had indeed been recording the sheriff and his friends, with what the sheriff described as “a sophisticated device that was disguised as a cellphone”. In Frenzel’s car deputies found files related to the blogger who had written about Vitter’s alleged love child with a prostitute.
Frenzel was a private detective himself, it turned out, and working for David Vitter.
Vitter owned up to hiring Frenzel, but declared everything he has done came under the scope of the law. Newell said he is investigating whether Frenzel’s surreptitious videos were illegal.
The most damaging blow to Vitter’s campaign – possibly worse than Jindal, and even the prostitution – may have been the alienation of his fellow conservative politicians and voters. Vitter is widely known in Washington as a vindictive opponent, but that throat-cutting style did not go over well in Louisiana, when he destroyed his Republican opponents in a ruthless primary campaign.
The depth of the right’s distaste for Vitter was revealed a couple of weeks ago when one of his key opponents in the primary, current lieutenant governor Jay Dardenne, announced his support for Edwards.
“The Republican brand has been damaged by the failed leadership of Bobby Jindal in his second term,” Dardenne said. “A David Vitter governorship will further damage our brand, as I and others have pointed out during the campaign.”
It was an extraordinary announcement: a sitting Republican lieutenant governor endorsing the Democratic candidate.
The result is that, according to the UNO poll, Bel Edwards is enjoying a surge of support from Republican voters.
Bolar dismissed those surveys. “Our numbers show a strong positive trend in our favor,” he said. Asked for specific trends he said, “We aren’t in the habit of releasing our internals.”
Chervenak said Vitter’s position ahead of Saturday’s vote “is not pretty. Some of the early votes are already bearing that out”.
But, he said, Vitter’s last-moment push to focus voters’ attention on Syrian refugees may pay off in some miraculous way.
“You have to finish the game, to know for sure who wins,” he said.
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