The Campaigns Behind The Campaigns In The 2015 LA Governor’s Race

On Tuesday afternoon, LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communications wrapped up its first-ever post-election symposium, Louisiana Speaks: Conversations About the 2015 Election, which began on Monday with a robust 90-minute long panel discussion about the media’s coverage of the race. Because I was a panelist yesterday, I’m probably not the best person to give you an objective report. I’ll leave that to William Taylor Potter of The Daily Reveille, who rightfully pointed to moderator Robert Travis Scott’s closing remarks in his recap. “To sum up, we have a lot of sex but not much love,” Scott said.

The symposium featured three panels and a whole bunch of inside baseball. Because this will air on statewide television (Louisiana Public Broadcasting, on both Dec. 16 and 20), I should warn you: If, like me, you think that a bunch of political nerds talking about an election makes for riveting television, this post contains a string of spoilers.

Tuesday’s first panel included representatives from all four of the major campaigns: Mary-Patricia Wray and Jared Arsement of the Edwards campaign, Ryan Cross and Roy Fletcher of the Angelle campaign, Jay Vicknair of the Dardenne campaign (who subsequently went to work for David Vitter), and Kyle Ruckert of the Vitter campaign.

It kicked off, however, with a presentation by Mike Henderson, the director of the Manship School’s Public Policy Research Lab. Henderson revealed the findings of the very last poll he conducted on the governor’s race. Vitter, he said, had actually been trending up after the bruising primary, but with only 28 days between the primary and the general election, it was all too little, too late. Henderson tracked voter sentiment on key issues and found that Vitter only had the advantage in three- immigration, security, and guns, which, he observed, are national hot buttons. Edwards’s advantage, on the other hand, was on issues that related to the state.

None of this is too surprising, and, in my opinion, it underscores a fundamental miscalculation by the Vitter campaign. Unlike a Senate election, the governor’s race hinges on issues that affect the state. After eight years of Bobby Jindal, voters were looking for a candidate who spoke to the concerns of Louisiana, not for yet another anti-Obama partisan.

The panel discussion, at times, seemed like a class reunion. And to extend the metaphor only briefly, if this were a high school class, the Vitter campaign would have been the guy you remember as a bully but who, years later, remembers himself to have been Mr. Nice Guy. After a discussion about the negative tone of Vitter’s campaign commercials, particularly those against Republican challengers Angelle and Dardenne, Kyle Ruckert tried to defend his boss. “We ran the most positive ads than anybody,” he said. “I know it wasn’t reported like that.”

While this may be technically true (Vitter, after all, ran more ads than anyone because he had more money than anyone), Ruckert’s fellow panelists and, it seemed, most in the audience recognized the flat-footed attempt to spin the story.

Ruckert, to his credit, acknowledged that Vitter avoided unscripted public debates and forums for fear that they would not focus on real issues, a clever way of implying that Vitter wanted to steer clear of discussing his “serious sin.”

The decision to run Vitter’s so-called “mea culpa” ad, he said, was only made after John Bel Edwards debuted the instantly famous “Prostitutes Over Patriots” commercial. Wray of the Edwards campaign said that if David Vitter had decided to come out earlier with a commercial apologizing to voters for his personal failures, they would have rethought their strategy and may have shelved “Prostitutes Over Patriots,” an ad based on research that Wray conducted in January and one they had deliberately saved for the run-off.

For what it is worth, there was a general consensus among participants in all three of the symposium’s panels that “Prostitutes Over Patriots” was a highly effective and critically important moment in the election and that the Edwards ad “Samantha” (which told the story about he and his wife acted against their doctor’s advice to have an abortion when, at 20 weeks pregnant, they discovered the baby had spina bifada) was the single best commercial of the campaign season. Jared Arsement, the man responsible for producing the Edwards campaign’s commercials, noted that the ad correlated with a nine-point increase in the campaign’s internal polling.

There are a few other notable takeaways from the first panel: The Angelle campaign realized they were surging in the final days before the primary election and were frustrated that no one in the media acknowledged this. Jay Vicknair spoke about how, as a member of the Dardenne campaign, he had grown accustomed to working for someone who was generally well-liked by the press and that the campaign was genuinely surprised when The Times-Picayune decided to endorse David Vitter. After the primary, Vicknair moved over to the Vitter campaign and immediately understood the media would be treating his new boss much differently. According to Ruckert, the Vitter campaign did a content analysis on election coverage, and 70% of the stories about David Vitter were negative.

The second panel, I thought, was the most interesting part of the entire two-day long symposium.

It was a conversation between Trey Ourso of GumboPAC (which had initially run an “Anybody But Vitter” campaign) and Joel DiGrado, the former Vitter chief of staff who had been pegged to lead the pro-Vitter PAC, Fund for Louisiana’s Future. I had half-expected a no-holds-barred brawl between the two men; after all, both PACs flooded the airwaves and cyberspace with brutal ads.

But instead, Ourso and DiGrado, along with moderators Julia O’Donaghue of The Times-Picayune and Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press, engaged in a respectful, funny, and substantive discussion about the campaigns behind the campaigns.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United gave birth to the SuperPAC and, in so doing, changed the landscape of American politics in ways that are continually unfolding, for better or worse.

One thing is for certain, though: Despite the fact that he raised significantly more money than any of his opponents combined, David Vitter still lost by double digits. Money- even big money, even when it’s given anonymously- can only go so far, particularly when it’s raised on behalf of a fundamentally flawed candidate.

Ourso lifted up the hood of the GumboPAC machine. GumboPAC, which was operated by both Ourso and his business partner Michael Beychok, raised a total of $3.1 million, $2.25 million of which came directly from the Democratic Governor’s Association. They spent $1.2 million in the last week alone, which is stunning in a small state like Louisiana. Today, a little more than two weeks later, they have around $20,000 in the bank. They spent everything they could and as quickly as they could.

GumboPAC began by focusing on the “Anybody But Vitter” vote, and once Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne were out, they decided to exclusively target Angelle and Dardenne voters, running a series of commercials that appealed to conservative values and featuring Republicans delivering testimonials about why they could never support David Vitter. GumboPAC was precise and strategic in all of its decisions. They opted out of the Shreveport market entirely, for example, which confused DiGrado and the Vitter campaign.

Today, Ourso explained their rationale: There simply weren’t enough Angelle and Dardenne voters to justify GumboPAC’s expense. But they kept spending in Alexandria, which also confused DiGrado until, he said, he realized the overlap between the Alexandria market and Acadiana, Scott Angelle’s base.

A couple of years ago, Ourso and Beychok won a national award for a mail piece they created for a Senate race in Missouri. They were working for Senator Claire McCaskill, and her opponent, Todd Akin, made national news after claiming that “legitimate rape” was a thing. Ourso and Beychok captured the audio of Akin’s remarks and sent out a “talking” mail piece, like one of those Hallmark gift cards that cues up with audio upon opening.

In the gubernatorial race, GumboPAC recreated a similar mailer. This time, though, it featured audio of Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne talking about David Vitter. And because it was an expensive product, GumboPAC was careful in who they targeted with the mailer. They sent it to every elected Republican official in Louisiana, including members of Republican Parish Executive Committees, to select members of the media, and to 1,500 select voters in a small area of Lafayette. I didn’t receive the mail piece, and you probably didn’t either. But among those who did, it definitely made an impression.

When Ourso was asked about the piece, DiGrado wondered aloud how it seemed to be all over the place. The truth, of course, was that GumboPAC had exclusively sent it to David Vitter’s most likely and most well-known supporters. “I put that in the sphere of very high psych warfare,” DiGrado said.

DiGrado, for his part, was fresh off of managing Bill Cassidy’s successful Senate campaign, and he believed that the best way to ensure a Vitter victory was to clear the Republican challengers by carpet-bombing both of them with attacks. Perhaps he was right; Vitter, after all, still made it into the runoff. But his attacks were so relentlessly brutal against candidates who appealed to other Republicans that many believed they ultimately backfired.

It’s now easy and convenient to view this year’s election with 20/20 vision through the rear-view mirror. The conventional wisdom, particularly among Republicans and members of the media who had all but ordained David Vitter as Louisiana’s next governor, is that this election was an anomaly, a repudiation of David Vitter the person and not the Republican Party. As evidence, they point to the 57% of the vote that the three Republican candidates split in the primary, not remembering Dardenne’s appeal to moderate Democrats and completely discounting the fact that Scott Angelle, for 31 years, was a registered Democrat. They point to John Bel Edwards’s positions on abortion and the Second Amendment as proof that he was really running as a DINO, a Democrat In Name Only, ignoring that, on both issues, Edwards has vowed to follow the Constitution, that he won’t be and never has been a culture warrior intent on bending the law of the land in order to appeal to a narrow faction of the religious right. They also refuse to recognize that John Bel Edwards ran a campaign that championed equal pay, Medicaid expansion, an increase in the minimum wage, the restoration of funding for public elementary and secondary schools and for higher education, all of which are the backbone of the Democratic Party.

“If David Vitter had never hired a prostitute in his entire life,” someone asked me today, “do you think he’d be governor right now?”

I wanted to answer, “Of course,” because that is the conventional wisdom. Without question, Vitter was finally held accountable for his “serious sin.” During the election, more than a few people cautioned against focusing too much on Vitter’s past, arguing that he could better be defeated with his own record. As it turns out, both were effective arguments against him, but after eight years of Jindal, David Vitter, even if he had never been caught on the D.C. Madam’s phone log, would have still lost miserably. John Bel Edwards was simply the better candidate. Without Deborah Jean Palfrey, David Vitter is still the least effective member of Congress; he is still the man who wanted to cap BP’s liability after the worst environmental disaster in American history; he is still loathed among a large faction of prominent Republicans in Louisiana. And without Deborah Jean Palfrey, it is likely that Vitter would have never had a major falling out with Bobby Jindal, the least popular governor in state history.

If I’ve learned anything over the last two days, it is that Louisiana is not nearly as ruby red as the media paints it to be. Democrats in Louisiana do not suffer from a lack of voters; they suffer from a lack of candidates. All but two of the state’s biggest cities are led by Democratic mayors, and while the national media has written off the white Southern Democrat as an extinct species, in Louisiana, there are several who hold prominent positions in the legislature.

For all of the talk about Republican majorities, we tend to forget: Democrats can take all of it back in a single election, and the Republicans only claimed a majority in the legislature after a series of defections. The GOP’s hold on the state is and has always been tenuous, but Jindal and Vitter, with their shrill partisan drivel, both sold the public and the media a radical narrative about the landscape of Louisiana politics. They told a story that a facile media was all too willing to buy and an apathetic public was all too willing to accept. The problem is: It’s just not true. We act as if it’s miraculous Louisiana now has a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion. We had one only eight years ago. And only two years ago, the polls showed a different Democratic gubernatorial candidate beating Vitter in the run-off.
John Bel Edwards’s victory, more than anything else, may be remembered as a myth buster.