Get ready for a knock-down, drag-out fight for the next four weeks in the governor’s race between John Bel Edwards and David Vitter.
It won’t be old-fashioned.
Instead, the weapons of choice for state Rep. Edwards and U.S. Sen. Vitter will be 30-second TV commercials and targeted social media posts on Facebook and Twitter.
And it won’t be pretty.
Each man will spend part of his time extolling his record and plans for state government to eliminate business tax breaks and wasteful spending to end the budget mess left behind by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the outgoing Republican-majority state Legislature.
But each candidate likely will spend more time drawing sharp contrasts with the other, as well as besmirching his name and reputation.
At the outset, neither candidate holds much of an advantage, if at all.
Edwards led the primary with 40 percent of the vote — five to 10 points higher than expected — followed by Vitter with 23 percent, who, six months ago, was the heavy favorite.
Edwards faces a built-in disadvantage because he is seeking to become the only Democrat to hold statewide office in red Louisiana, a year after Democratic stalwart U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu lost her re-election bid with 44 percent of the vote.
But Vitter, a family-values Republican, limped into the runoff, tarred by his divisive reputation and a 2007 sex scandal, with nearly half of the state’s voters holding an unfavorable view of him.
Edwards’ key financial backers are wealthy trial lawyers and teachers unions, while Vitter will bankroll his campaign with contributions from oil and gas and chemical companies, and other business interests.
“We should expect a tough, partisan campaign,” said Ed Chervenak, a University of New Orleans political science professor. “David Vitter will do everything he can to define John Bel Edwards as a liberal national Democrat. John Bel Edwards has to convince voters that he’s a different kind of Democrat.”
Super PACs, which thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court can collect contributions of $100,000, $1 million or whatever amount from wealthy donors, will launch attack ad after attack ad, just as they did in the primary.
Both men signaled their strategies in their speeches Saturday night.
Edwards will tie Vitter to Jindal, who won a resounding re-election victory four years ago but is now roundly reviled in Louisiana as he leaves office, in part because of the widespread feeling that he has abandoned the state to run for president.
“For years, our people have been sacrificed by Bobby Jindal’s political ambitions,” Edwards told a cheering crowd Saturday night in Baton Rouge. “No more.”
Vitter will tie Edwards to another political figure who is unpopular in Louisiana, President Barack Obama.
“Voting for John Bel Edwards is the same as voting for Barack Obama as governor of Louisiana,” Vitter said to equally fervent cheers Saturday night at his campaign party in Kenner.
If history is a guide, expect Vitter in particular to be a barroom brawler. In each of his races, he has run against something — former Gov. Edwin Edwards and the state Democratic Party when he won elections to the state House in the 1990s; the past and the status quo when he defeated former Republican Gov. David Treen in a special congressional election in 1999; and Washington and national Democrats in his two Senate victories.
This time, as Vitter showed Saturday, he will be running against “the politicians in Baton Rouge,” even though Jindal is a Republican and Republicans hold majorities in the state House and Senate.
John Treen has never forgiven Vitter for his unrelenting attacks against his brother in that 1999 election, after Vitter and David Treen, at Vitter’s initiative, agreed not to attack each other. Keeping that deal was important for Treen, who was known among Democrats and Republicans alike for his honest and honorable approach to politics.
Vitter, however, went on the attack, according to John Treen and two others who were part of that campaign, in fliers with different messages to white and black voters that the Treen campaign found far outside the bounds of fair play.
“To distort my brother’s record, I thought, was despicable,” John Treen said, adding that his brother, who died in 2009, never fully recovered emotionally from the defeat. “The idea that someone made a deal and broke his word got to him.”
Vitter has dismissed comments like these as sour grapes.
Charlie Melancon, then a U.S. House member, lost the 2010 Senate race to Vitter after Vitter repeatedly said a vote for Melancon was a vote for Obama.
“If he is true to his past, David Vitter will paint a less than truthful picture of JBE with direct mail attack pieces of negative information to his usual targeted white prospects,” Melancon said in an email.
During the primary, Vitter and a super PAC allied with him savaged his two Republican rivals — Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne — with attack ads. Both men cried foul.
“Sen. Pinocchio,” Angelle called Vitter.
The opening image on the Dardenne campaign’s website Sunday morning continued to consist of the words “SENATOR LIAR” stamped over a grainy photo of Vitter. “The more David Vitter spends on television ads the less truth they contain,” reads the opening line of the top link on the Dardenne website.
Vitter mostly left Edwards unsullied during the primary because he wanted to face the Democrat in the runoff rather than Angelle or Dardenne.
In his remarks Saturday night, Edwards noted that he didn’t run any negative spots against Vitter during the primary. In his ads, he highlighted his background as a West Point cadet and Army ranger who chose with his wife Donna to give birth to their daughter Samantha after their doctor recommended an abortion because she would be born with spina bifida, a serious problem of the spinal cord.
Others handled Edwards’ dirty work.
The Carmouche trial attorney firm in Baton Rouge spent at least $1.6 million reminding voters over and over again in TV commercials of the “very serious sin” that Vitter in 2007 said he had committed several years earlier in connection to the D.C. Madam.
Vitter’s core group of supporters consists of social conservatives who accept his statement in 2007 that he had erred but won forgiveness from his wife, Wendy, and God.
“He who is without sin cast the first stone,” the Rev. L. Lawrence Brandon, a Baptist minister in Shreveport who introduced Vitter to the crowd Saturday night, said in an interview afterward. “All of us have done things that are not pleasing. Vitter is about moving our state forward. I’m praying for him 100 percent.”
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter @TegBridges. For more coverage of the governor’s race, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.