U.S. Sen.-elect Bill Cassidy wasn’t the only winner standing onstage at Baton Rouge’s Crowne Plaza on Saturday night after trouncing three-term incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu.
Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter took the podium before Cassidy at Cassidy’s victory party and then was mentioned in Cassidy’s speech even before Cassidy thanked his own wife.
Both events illustrate the role Vitter, who is running for governor in Louisiana, had in the effort to unseat Landrieu and send another Louisiana Republican to the Senate.
Word among most political observers is that Vitter was key to clearing the Republican field for the state’s 6th District congressman and in orchestrating Cassidy’s campaign. One of Vitter’s top aides, Joel DiGrado, served as Cassidy’s campaign manager after Cassidy parted ways with a consultant to Gov. Bobby Jindal.
“I think that Vitter was calling the shots here,” said Charlie Cook, a Shreveport native and political analyst who runs the national Cook Political Report in Washington.
Vitter was traveling Monday and declined The Advocate’s request for an interview.
“Bill Cassidy is a proven conservative, and he’s succeeded in what a lot of folks initially didn’t think possible — defeating Sen. Landrieu,” Vitter said in a written statement Monday. “I was certainly proud to stand with Bill early on in this race. I did it for two reasons: because Bill is a strong conservative, and because he was in a strong position to beat Mary.”
While Vitter didn’t directly note his own role in ousting longtime adversary Landrieu, others have clearly noticed.
“He’s become the kingpin in Louisiana politics,” Cook said. “I think that he will dominate state politics for a good while.”
State Rep. Paul Hollis, a Covington Republican who had considered running for the U.S. Senate seat until Vitter urged him not to, said Vitter’s role was “hugely important” in Cassidy’s campaign.
“He’s obviously somebody you want to have on your side,” Hollis said. “For any person running for office, it’s important to have someone who’s been down that path before and is obviously very skilled.”
Vitter was the first person mentioned in Cassidy’s victory speech after a broader thank you to staff and volunteers.
Vitter and his wife, Wendy, “helped us from the very beginning, just driving the message,” Cassidy said about three minutes into his speech.
Cassidy’s wife, Laura, and other family members were noted more than a minute after Vitter.
Cassidy didn’t mention Jindal, who spent election day in the Washington, D.C., area.
Vitter, who has been in elected office for more than two decades starting on the state level, easily won re-election to his second U.S. Senate term in 2010, despite a scandal in which phone records linked him to Washington’s “D.C. Madam” prostitution case in 2007.
Southern University political science professor Albert Samuels said Cassidy’s campaign strategy, which relied heavily on tying Landrieu to President Barack Obama, largely mirrored Vitter’s own approach to elections.
“A lot of the things that those of us who want to see a fair and open process, those things tend to go against the grain when your goal is to win an election,” Samuels said during a meeting of the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday.
Cassidy agreed to just three debates — two before the primary and one before the runoff election. He wouldn’t talk to reporters after some events, including the debates, and near the end of the campaign, he frequently relied on written media statements, even as Landrieu’s team sought to drum up interest in questions over Cassidy’s part-time job at LSU.
Vitter maintains an often chilly relationship with the media, particularly in the fallout of his prostitution scandal.
In his statement to The Advocate on Monday, Vitter touted Cassidy as someone who will be a strong ally in the newly Republican-controlled Senate — focusing on efforts to promote the energy industry, block efforts toward immigration amnesty, decrease federal spending and repeal the federal Affordable Care Act.
“President Obama and the Harry Reid-controlled Senate have been moving the country in exactly the wrong direction, and I know that Bill will be a huge help in turning things around,” Vitter said.
Though asked, he didn’t speculate as to what Cassidy’s victory says or could mean for his own gubernatorial aspirations.
Vitter is considered one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate and has recently announced that he now opposes the Common Core education standards. On Monday, he announced plans to attempt to amend an upcoming federal spending bill to ensure that states continue to enjoy federal waivers even if they opt out of the new standards in reading, writing and math.
Many have speculated that the move could further cement his position as a gubernatorial favorite among conservatives.
Other high-profile Republicans already have lined up to wage their own campaigns for the open governor’s seat. Jindal can’t seek re-election because of term limits.
Other Republicans running include Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle. State Rep. John Bel Edwards, of Amite, is running on the Democratic side.
Vitter can run without vacating his Senate seat because it isn’t up for re-election until 2016.
If Vitter were to win the governor’s race, he would then have the advantage of appointing his own successor to the U.S. Senate — giving him direct influence over both of Louisiana’s Senate seats.
The prospect also could serve as a dangling carrot that ambitious Republicans would no doubt be eyeing as Vitter sets out to build support on the campaign trail.
Hollis, who is in his first term in the state Legislature and has endorsed Vitter in the governor’s race, said he has had no conversations with Vitter about the potential for a U.S. Senate opening.
Hollis described Vitter, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, as someone who is “smarter than about anybody I know.”
“I like that he was conservative even back in the day when it wasn’t popular,” Hollis said.
Samuels, the political science professor, said the gubernatorial run won’t be a slam dunk for Vitter, though he is currently seen as the front-runner in the race.
“Republicans will have a fight among themselves,” he said. “I don’t think the Republicans are going to concede the Governor’s Mansion to David Vitter.”
He said under Louisiana’s unusual “jungle primary” setup that pits all candidates, regardless of party, against each other from the start, it’s possible that two Republicans could face each other in a runoff — splitting the state’s GOP base in an unpredictable scenario.
“The Democrats may not have a candidate to make the runoff,” Samuels said. “The real question is what do the Democrats do.”
Gregory Roberts, of The Advocate Washington bureau, contributed to this report. Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.