For Whom The Bel Tolls: David Vitter’s Stunning Defeat

At exactly 8:48PM on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, Mike Henderson, the director of the Public Policy Research Lab at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communications, tweeted, “That’s a wrap, folks. It’s over for Vitter. The only question now is whether it’s over for (Les) Miles too.” Like many of the people packed inside the ballroom of the Hotel Monteleone, I had been obsessively checking for election updates. Results were still pouring in, and although pollster Greg Rigamer had actually called the gubernatorial election the day before for John Bel Edwards, his call was entirely speculative.

Henderson is a numbers guy, and he was looking at the raw data. If he said the election was over, it was over. By 9:02PM, the mainstream media caught up with Henderson, sending the ballroom into a frenzy. A brass band fired up “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the crowd erupted into a spontaneous and sustained chant: “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat John Bel?”

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1,005 days after a little known state representative from Amite, Louisiana casually announced on the Jim Engster radio show that he was running to replace Bobby Jindal, State Rep. John Bel Edwards became Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards. If, on February 19, 2013, you had asked any veteran political observer in Louisiana whether they believed Edwards would be celebrating a victory nearly three years later, the answer would have been universal: No way.

John Bel Edwards’s victory over David Vitter was improbable and stunning, not only because he is a Democrat who beat a Republican juggernaut by 12.2 points, but also because he did so by running a nearly flawless campaign. A couple of years ago, Clancy DuBos of Gambit told me, somewhat presciently, that “on paper” John Bel Edwards had the perfect resume for the job.

DuBos’s observation may seem counter-intuitive to some. David Vitter, after all, is an Ivy League educated Rhodes Scholar with 24 years of experience in state and national office and a R behind his name. But DuBos understood what made John Bel Edwards a compelling candidate (even though Gambit did eventually endorse Jay Dardenne in the primary, something I teased him about on Saturday night). Louisiana already tried out an Ivy League educated Rhodes Scholar, and today, he is the least popular governor in Louisiana history. Edwards may be a Democrat, but Barack Obama is twice as popular in Louisiana than Bobby Jindal. And in Louisiana, on paper, an Army Ranger veteran with a degree from West Point should easily be able to trounce a career politician with a degree from Harvard and some study abroad experience in England.

The question back then was: How would John Bel Edwards make the case for himself?

In February of 2013, the conventional wisdom was that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu represented the strongest threat to David Vitter. Landrieu had the name recognition, the political machine, the connections, the experience, and the polish. In 2010, he relinquished his position as Lt. Gov. to run for mayor, earning a walloping 67% of the vote in the primary. But the timing didn’t exactly work in Landrieu’s favor. He’d be running for re-election in 2014, and later that year, his sister Mary would face her own re-election battle for the U.S. Senate.

Nonetheless, Mitch Landrieu seemed to be privately contemplating a bid. For more than two years, pollsters focused on a hypothetical Landrieu candidacy, not even bothering to ask voters about Edwards, and, importantly, the majority of those polls showed Landrieu narrowly winning.

Landrieu didn’t make it official until April 27, 2015, when he told members of the Baton Rouge Press Club that he would not be running for governor. By then, his announcement was just a formality. Edwards, to his  credit, understood that if Landrieu were to jump into the race, his campaign would almost certainly be doomed. Behind the scenes, Edwards worked methodically to secure key endorsements, leaving little room for a potential Landrieu challenge. A month before Landrieu finally put the rumors to rest, Edwards picked up the endorsement that mattered most. On March 28th, the Louisiana Democratic Party made it clear: John Bel Edwards was their candidate.

To be sure, I think the speculation around Landrieu was largely informed by people who thought he should run and by those who feared he would run. For more than two years, sources close to Landrieu repeatedly told me the same thing, both on and off the record: He had the job he wanted. When I’d point out that Landrieu once said the same thing as Lt. Gov., before making a last-minute entrance into the 2010 mayoral election, the response was always the same and definitive: He had too much work left to do in New Orleans.

Although the sustained speculation about Landrieu frustrated the Edwards campaign and undermined their fundraising efforts, it also underscored, very early on, a critically important fact: A Democrat could beat David Vitter. It’s a point that has been largely ignored in recent media coverage about Vitter’s sudden and spectacular fall.

Still, this doesn’t make Edwards’s victory any less remarkable. Prior to this year’s election, John Bel Edwards had never received more than 10,000 votes. Last Saturday night, he earned more than 646,000.

How did he do it?

John Bel Edwards made himself accessible.

A couple of years ago, I criticized a bill Edwards authored increasing mandatory minimums for heroin dealers. I couldn’t vote for him, I wrote, if he really believed in ratcheting up the War on Drugs. At the time, I’d been reading a series of court cases about drug offenders for a class in law school, and I became increasingly convinced that mandatory minimums were terrible public policy.

John Bel Edwards read my criticism, and he wrote me the next day, asking if we could speak on the phone. We talked for nearly an hour. I made my case, and he made his. We approached the issue from very different perspectives, but he reassured me, in no uncertain terms, that he believes in reforming the criminal justice system and the ways in which we treat non-violent drug offenders. Indeed, it became a major part of his campaign.

Since then, I’ve spoken with Edwards numerous times for stories published here and elsewhere. And I know he treats other members of the media the same way. I should also note that both the Angelle and the Dardenne campaigns made themselves accessible, and like Edwards, they were always generous with their time and open about their positions.

This stands in stark contrast to David Vitter. Vitter boasted that he had given out his personal cell phone number to more than 1,000 people, yet no one in the media, it seemed, ever really reached him. He skipped six of the eight primary debates. He dodged questions for sport. When a reporter asked him about cheating on his wife, the reporter was immediately fired.

I actually broke that story on Twitter and reached out to Vitter’s communications director for comment. It was one of the only times Vitter’s campaign responded to me. They claimed the reporter had physically assaulted a young woman while questioning Vitter. Last week, I finally saw the video footage. The reporter was definitely aggressive in his questioning, but he didn’t assault anyone. That was a lie.

Which brings me to another reason John Bel Edwards earned those 646,000 votes.

John Bel Edwards made honesty a platform issue.

Because of Edwards, many of us now can recite the West Point Honor Code from memory: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Edwards’s decision to invoke the Honor Code was tactically brilliant: It reminded voters of his military experience and of David Vitter’s cheating past. It also confounded Vitter’s campaign and his surrogates, who had been pushing a narrative about the Senator’s “redemption” as a way of appealing to evangelical Christians. But when they mocked Edwards as “Saint John Bel,” they were also mocking the Honor Code itself and tacitly acknowledging the stark contrast between Edwards and Vitter.

The Honor Code wasn’t the only reason honesty became a platform issue, though. Primarily, it was at the front and center of this year’s race because David Vitter couldn’t stop lying.

In the jungle primary, he repeatedly lied about Republican challengers Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne, and the lies were so outlandish and egregious that Dardenne decided to endorse Edwards and Angelle decided to preemptively float his name for U.S. Senate in 2016 (a not-so-subtle way of saying that he was ready and willing to run against Vitter again).

But the lies didn’t end there. One day before the primary election, a private investigator working for the Vitter campaign was caught spying on Sheriff Newell Normand, a Republican from Jefferson Parish. It was a story I first broke here, after piecing together the day’s booking records with campaign finance reports, and one that subsequently became known as Spygate.

In the runoff campaign, Vitter ran a grossly misleading attack ad against Edwards, alleging that Edwards planned on releasing 5,500 dangerous “thugs” out of prison. Edwards, it turns out, had merely been talking about common sense reforms on sentences for non-violent drug offenders and the need to ensure that Louisiana is no longer the prison capital of the world, a position embraced by both Republicans and Democrats and backed by the Sheriff’s Association. Vitter’s ad smacked of racism and desperation, and it didn’t give him any traction. But he wasn’t finished.

With only a week to go, Vitter pounced on the terrorist attacks in France, arguing that they underscored the need to halt the immigration of Syrian refugees into Louisiana. 10,000 refugees were headed to Louisiana, his allies in the conservative media warned, and John Bel Edwards would be rolling out the welcome mat. There were several problems with Vitter’s line of attack: First, Edwards actually called for a halt on immigration in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks. At the time, the media falsely reported that one of the terrorists was a Syrian refugee. Second, there weren’t 10,000 refugees headed to Louisiana. In fact, Louisiana had taken in a total of 14 refugees, and in an incredible twist of irony, the charity responsible for bringing in those refugees lists Wendy Vitter as its general counsel.

A few days before the election, a reporter from WBRZ and a blogger from a conservative website both alleged that one of the Syrian refugees who had immigrated to Louisiana went “missing.” Vitter pounced again. And even after the story was proven absolutely untrue, he continued to insist otherwise.

This was David Vitter’s last ditch effort, his final hurrah, and he went for broke. When Edwards pointed out that Vitter skipped congressional hearings on Syrian refugees, Vitter insisted that he’d been warning about the potential terrorist threats posed by these refugees for a long time, posting a letter he’d written to the State Department back in September as evidence and using that letter in a campaign commercial.

There was just one problem. The State Department didn’t receive Vitter’s letter until November 17th, four days before the election. Vitter, it seems, had backdated his letter.  

National pundits wondered whether Vitter’s deceptive fear-mongering over the Paris attacks and the Syrian refugees would make any difference. It didn’t. If anything, it exposed what a crass and cynical politician David Vitter really was.

Finally and most obviously, David Vitter’s prostitution scandal caught up with him.

During the last two and a half years, I’ve heard numerous new allegations about the most notable part of David Vitter’s biography, almost all of which were told to me off the record. I’ve been told stories about love children from Louisiana and Kentucky, stories about adoption cover-up schemes, stories about legislative scholarships given to sex workers, and stories about a teenaged David Vitter visiting a brothel in Metairie with a famous Louisiana Republican politician. I haven’t reported the details of any of these stories because I don’t think any of them are true. Instead, I recognize them for what they are: The outlandish gossip that David Vitter opened himself up to when he refused to answer any questions about his involvement with the D.C. Madam. His silence created a vacuum that had to be filled.

This year, shortly before the primary, Jason Brad Berry of The American Zombie published an interview he conducted with Wendy Ellis, a former prostitute who had previously sold a much different story about Vitter to Hustler. Today, Ellis claims she carried on a three-year affair with Vitter, that he paid her $5,000 a month, lavished her with gifts, got her pregnant, and then asked her to have an abortion. Ellis’s story doesn’t add up, though, and perhaps due to the work of his private investigator, Vitter appeared to be well prepared for it, quickly providing the media with a handwritten letter Ellis sent to a judge that contradicts the timeline she gave to Berry.

But even if Ellis’s story is completely and totally untrue, it still reinforces a critical point: David Vitter was conducting opposition research on former sex workers.

Ultimately, voters didn’t want that kind of person in the Governor’s Mansion.

The media may have not believed that John Bel Edwards was actually going to win this thing until he actually won it, but at the risk of sounding arrogant and smug, I predicted a John Bel Edwards victory on January 27, 2014, in an article titled “Larry Flynt, Bobby Jindal, and Why David Vitter Won’t Become Louisiana’s Next Governor.” “(I)f, 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,” I predicted.

The reason, I thought, was simple: The governor is often the last person you hear about on the nightly local news and the first person you read about in the morning paper. We send senators away to Washington, D.C., and we send governors into a home we own in Baton Rouge.

We picked a good one this time, Louisiana. We rejected divisive partisanship in favor of principled cooperativeness. No doubt, it won’t be an easy four years. “Frankly, there are times when I wish Vitter would get elected,” Edwin Edwards told The New York Times last month.“Because he’d be a miserable fellow for four years.”

David Vitter would have been miserable, because he would have been miserable at the job. The job demands respect from both sides of the aisle. It demands character. And after eight years of Bobby Jindal, we also know that it demands a willingness to actually be there.

Governing is about showing up. And however improbable John Bel Edwards’s victory may seem, it’s important to remember: John Bel Edwards won, because, despite the tremendous odds against him and the millions and millions raised and spent by David Vitter, John Bel Edwards showed up.