Louisiana's Bitter Gubernatorial Race Enters Its Final Week

Nov 16, 2015
Originally published on November 19, 2015 2:49 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For a moment on Friday, it seemed the world stopped as news spread of attacks in Paris. But American politics do not stop for long. And if you think about it, that's actually the point. Louisiana holds an election Saturday. It's a heavily Republican state with a Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. But as he steps down, there's a chance a Democrat could replace him. In polling, John Bel Edwards leads Republican David Vitter who has struggled to overcome a past prostitution scandal. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Senator David Vitter is enlisting a reality TV star from the Louisiana-based show "Duck Dynasty" in his quest to redeem voter trust. In this ad, they are standing by an ATV, wearing camouflage.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

WILLIE ROBERTSON: Hey, this is Willie Robertson. David and I have been out in the woods today. I know he's made some mistakes, but who hasn't? The whole story of the Bible is about redemption. I'm concerned about our state.

DAVID VITTER: That's right, Willie. What defines us in life is how we get up and earn redemption.

ELLIOTT: It's a departure from his early primary campaign, where Vitter avoided questions from the press and any scenario where his past might come up. In 2007, Vitter's phone number surfaced on the client list of a D.C. Madam. At the time, he confessed to a, quote, "serious sin," but said little more, and then handily won re-election to the Senate in 2010. But now, running behind in a runoff for governor against Democrat John Bel Edwards, Vitter is being forced to acknowledge the scandal. This ad has him talking about it from the kitchen table.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

VITTER: Fifteen years ago, I failed my family, but found forgiveness and love.

ELLIOTT: Meantime, John Bel Edwards, a veteran and West Point graduate, is making sure voters don't forget. This attack ad accuses Vitter of missing a vote to honor soldiers, when phone logs show he was making a call to a house of ill repute.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots.

ELLIOTT: In a debate last week, Vitter tried to turn the tables, accusing Edwards of being disingenuous and not living by the military honor code.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VITTER: You act holier than thou. Oh, we don't do negative campaigning. Well, in fact, you have to most vicious negative ad up right now that veterans have been offended by and asked you to take down.

ELLIOTT: In the rancorous exchange that followed, Edwards responded, quote, "if it's a low-blow, it's only because that's where you live, Senator." And more...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BEL EDWARDS: You are a liar and you are a cheater and you are a stealer. And I don't tolerate that.

VITTER: To the state democratic party about this. What have you said to the trial lawyers about this?

ELLIOTT: While some Republican-elected officials have stood behind Vitter's candidacy, he does not have the support of the losing GOP candidates for governor. Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne is now backing the Democrat Edwards. He says Vitter damages the Republican brand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAY DARDENNE: When are we as Louisianans going to stop tolerating the embarrassment that too many of our elected officials have heaped upon this state?

ELLIOTT: He's apparently not alone. A poll from the University of New Orleans shows Edwards picking up a sizable portion of people who voted for Dardenne and another Republican in the primary. It's a steep slide from earlier this year, when Vitter was all but presumed the next governor of this conservative state. There aren't any statewide elected Democrats in Louisiana. Silas Lee, a pollster and sociologist at Xavier University in New Orleans, says Vitter has not been able to take control of the message.

SILAS LEE: The ghost of his past is never going to leave his political legacy. And in this campaign, it's constantly haunting him.

ELLIOTT: Vitter is also facing an electorate that is not pleased with the current Republican administration of Bobby Jindal, who is term-limited. It's no surprise that national Democrats see thE Louisiana race as a way to get back on the map in the deep South. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.