Last Tuesday, Senator David Vitter surprised absolutely no one and announced his intention to run for Governor of Louisiana in 2015. According to conventional wisdom, Vitter is now, instantly, the frontrunner: He’s won statewide elections twice; he has deep pockets, name recognition, and, of course, he is a Republican. If you believe the polls, voters in Louisiana, by and large, have forgiven him for his “serious sin;” in fact, his approval numbers are among the highest in the state.
None of this matters, because David Vitter won’t be elected Governor of Louisiana.
When Vitter coasted to reelection, walloping Charlie Melancon, many assumed this meant that his involvement in the DC Madam scandal was officially behind him.
But that’s absurd.
This is what happens when you search Google for David Vitter:
Nearly seven years after David Vitter, with his wife Wendy at his side, walked into the glare of national news cameras (on the same day, by the way, that Bobby Jindal announced his candidacy for Governor), his name is still most closely associated with the words “diaper,” “scandal,” and “prostitutes.” You’d be hard-pressed to find any national news story about David Vitter that does not mention the word “prostitution.”
Vitter didn’t win re-election to the Senate because Louisiana voters “forgave” him; he won, frankly, because he was a Republican incumbent and because his Democratic opponent, Congressman Melancon, was too nice and perhaps too meek to really “go there.” Meanwhile, Vitter and his campaign bullied Melancon every chance they had.
David Vitter allegedly received phone calls from a prostitution service while he was on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, a critical fact that seemed to be completely ignored during his reelection campaign. Quoting from CBS News (bold mine):
A woman accused of running a Washington prostitution ring placed five phone calls to David Vitter while he was a House member, including two while roll call votes were under way, according to telephone and congressional records.
The investigation of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the “DC Madam,” may have first broken the story about Vitter’s involvement with prostitutes, but for many in New Orleans, Vitter’s predilection for prostitutes was known even during his days in the Louisiana State Legislature. Indeed, shortly after Vitter’s name appeared on Palfrey’s phone records, two different prostitutes, Jeanette Maier (also known as the “Canal Street Madam”) and Wendy “Cortez” Yow, claimed that Vitter was one of their clients when he was then-State Representative Vitter. Quoting from The Times-Picayune (bold mine):
Days after U.S. Sen. David Vitter apologized after his phone number was linked to an escort service in Washington, D.C., a woman who once worked as a prostitute in Louisiana said he was a regular client of hers several years ago while he was a state legislator.
The woman worked under the name Wendy Cortez. Her maiden name is Wendy Yow, according to her ex-husband, who asked not to be named but said he has seen her birth certificate.
Yow, contacted through relatives, called The Times-Picayune Wednesday night and said Vitter was a regular customer of hers, but said the two did not have a romantic relationship. She claimed to have severed ties with him after she found out he was married. Yow said it was a part of her life she hoped to put behind her.
Before she went to trial, Deborah Jeane Palfrey committed suicide. Meanwhile, United States Attorney Jim Letten, who was investigating the Canal Street Brothel, took the unusual step of telling the media that David Vitter’s name never appeared on the records his office uncovered from Jeanette Maier. As Mark Moseley pointed out at the time, Letten’s statement, however, does not mean that Maier lied (after all, Vitter admitted to being a client of the DC Madam); it just means he never found a definitive master list of her clients, which really shouldn’t be too surprising, particularly considering that they were engaging in an illegal business. Maier, for what it’s worth, believes that the DC Madam was actually murdered. Wendy “Cortez” Yow has all but disappeared.
And David Vitter is now a two-term United States Senator who is campaigning to become the next Governor of Louisiana.
It’s not that Louisiana voters necessarily “forgave” Senator Vitter for his “serious sin;” it’s that voters never really understood the full story: This wasn’t merely about one high-priced prostitution service in Washington, DC; this was about a politician who presented himself to voters as a “family values” conservative, all the while engaging in illegal, extramarital affairs over the span of more than a decade. At least two of the “madams” associated with Senator Vitter were prosecuted as criminals; Palfrey faced nearly sixty years in prison.
David Vitter, however, held onto his seat, despite the calls for his resignation, and he spent his re-election campaign attacking President Obama and the Democratic Party. He played offense, not defense, and it worked.
He won’t have that luxury during the Governor’s race.
Shortly after Vitter admitted to paying prostitutes for sex, Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine, offered $1 million to any woman who would come forward with evidence of a sexual affair with a sitting member of Congress, an offer that, as far as I can gather, still stands. Thus far, no one has taken him up on his offer, and while it is plausible that no one has been able to produce sufficient evidence (Flynt’s obviously looking for more than just a sworn affidavit), it is also possible, if not plausible, that some of these women entered into non-disclosure agreements and that Flynt’s $1 million reward was simply not as lucrative. For years, I’ve heard detailed rumors from trusted sources about pay-outs, and I imagine these rumors will become much more amplified during the campaign season. Remember, of course: Senator Vitter, in so many words, essentially admitted to breaking the law; at the very least, the DC Madam did not call the wrong number five times.
It is true, no doubt, that the people of Louisiana are more willing than others to overlook the personal peccadilloes and potential criminality of their elected officials. In 1991, thousands of people plastered the sticker “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important” to their car bumpers, and fortunately, the “crook” won; Louisiana was spared the indignity of having a former member of the Ku Klux Klan as its Governor.
But Edwin Edwards is not anything like David Vitter. Despite the fact that Edwards served eight years in prison for corruption, he remains immensely popular. This is what happens when you search Google for Edwin Edwards:
People still like Edwin Edwards, despite his conviction, not because of his character, but because he is a character. And while his reality show was a flop, there is a reason it was green-lit: Over the span of three decades, Edwin Edwards was a part of daily life in Louisiana. He was in our homes, on our nightly local news and in our daily morning papers, and he was likable. We called him the “Cajun Prince;” he never tried to pretend to be someone he was not.
Vitter, on the other hand, built his political brand by pretending to be a moralizing crusader, peddling a phony, toxic, bigoted brand of Christianity and aligning himself with hate-mongers like Tony Perkins and Gene Mills. As a State Representative and as a United States Senator, he’s proven, over and over, to care more about politics and consolidating political power than in working on policy. His resume, much like Bobby Jindal’s, suggests that he should be smarter than this, but he’s not.
Vitter has made an effort to distance himself from Governor Jindal, and this has much more to do with the fact that Jindal is now widely unpopular among Louisiana voters than it does with any real ideological differences between the two men. Indeed, Vitter’s disagreements with Jindal are trivial, not substantive. Jindal’s dismal approval numbers are a direct result of his positions on school vouchers, health care, tax reform, prison privatization, accountability for coastal restoration, and higher education, all of which are shared by Senator Vitter.
Louisiana voters sent David Vitter back to Washington, but after his scandal and after eight years of Bobby Jindal, they’re unlikely to invite him into their living rooms every night.
It should be telling to Louisianians that Vitter’s first campaign action (via his “unaffiliated” DC-based PAC) was to challenge Louisiana’s law against unlimited donations. It’s a signal that he realizes how difficult it will be for him to raise money in-state from a wide swath of voters.
State Representative John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is already in the election, and so far, he is Vitter’s lone challenger. But likely, that won’t be for long; other Republicans, like Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne, are almost guaranteed to run.
However, if, in fact, the election comes down between John Bel Edwards and David Vitter, then no matter what, Louisiana’s next Governor will be a John.