During his campaign for governor, U.S. Sen. David Vitter is running against the political system in Baton Rouge.
Ironically, he played a major role in creating that system, and his fellow Republicans are firmly in control of power.
Vitter was the main legislative sponsor of the 1995 term limits measure that forced slightly more than half of all Louisiana House members in 2007 to relinquish their seats. Most of them were Democrats.
Vitter also created a super PAC that supported at least two dozen Republicans who won legislative races in the 2007 and 2011 elections and that paved the way for the party to gain control of the Legislature for the first time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. At least 20 of the Republicans who won office in those two elections are serving in either the Louisiana House or the state Senate.
The GOP takeover prompted many Republicans to throw bouquets his way.
“David Vitter did everything he could for us to eventually build a majority,” Jim Tucker, who headed the Republican House delegation leading up to the 2007 elections, said in an interview two years ago. “We wouldn’t have taken the majority then without Vitter.”
Today, though, Vitter wants voters to think he has nothing to do with what happens at the State Capitol.
“The politicians in Baton Rouge have handed us a massive budget mess,” Vitter said in a TV ad in September, adding that he plans to eliminate “politicians’ special perks and giveaways, like thousands of unnecessary state cars and millions in pet projects and state consulting contracts. I’ve already given them term limits. They say I’m annoying the politicians.” He chuckled. “Must be doing something right.”
Indeed, legislators who served with Vitter in the state House from 1992-99 said he was a loner who didn’t get along with his coworkers then, and news reports indicate he is no more popular with his fellow senators today in Washington.
And his current campaign is not winning any friends with legislators he wants to work with in Baton Rouge next year.
“He says we’re the problem,” said state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Breaux Bridge. “How do you build a coalition by divide and conquer?” (Mills is close to Scott Angelle, the Public Service Commissioner who finished third in the primary.)
Vitter’s 1995 term limits law, which first passed the state Legislature and then was approved by voters that year, had a major impact in the Capitol. More than four dozen veteran lawmakers had to retire from politics or run for another job in 2007 when the 1995 law, which limited legislators to 12 years in a single chamber, kicked in.
In 2005, in anticipation of that, Vitter created a super PAC — called the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority — to aggressively recruit candidates and help finance campaigns to achieve a Republican takeover of the state Legislature. Vitter calculated that it would be easier to win open seats than defeat Democratic incumbents.
To attain his goal, Vitter tapped businesses and wealthy individuals, inside and outside of Louisiana, to finance the super PAC.
Leading up to the 2007 legislative elections, then-Rep. Tucker and John Diez, who led Vitter’s super PAC, traveled the state to recruit Republican candidates.
They focused on districts that had voted Republican in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections but were represented by Democrats in the state Legislature. In many cases, the candidates they recruited switched from the Democratic Party.
In the meantime, to develop an agenda with strong voter appeal ahead of the 2007 election, Vitter and Tucker regularly plotted strategy to push issues that would assist Republican candidates in the election.
One of the candidates helped that year was Cameron Henry, who had been an aide to Steve Scalise in the state House before Scalise moved up to Congress in 2008. Vitter hosted a fundraiser for Henry in Washington that raised him about $10,000 and made him a more credible candidate in his Metairie legislative district.
“It helps you raise money back home when you have a sitting senator host an event for you in Washington,” said Henry, who has endorsed Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign and is angling to be the next speaker of the state House.
All told, the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority raised $1.2 million to assist about 20 Republican legislative candidates in the 2007 elections. Metairie bank owner and developer Joseph Canizaro served as chairman and was a big contributor.
Among the other donors: Lockport-based Bollinger Shipyards ($27,500), Metairie-based businessman Edward Diefenthal ($56,000), philanthropist and oil and gas executive Phyllis Taylor ($27,500), and Kansas-based Koch Industries ($100,000).
Assisted, as well, by a landslide victory by Bobby Jindal to become governor, Republicans picked up 10 seats in 2007 in the 105-member House, and, through party switches and victories in special elections, the party took control of both the House and the Senate in early 2011.
Political insiders could not remember a senator or congressman in Washington playing such a heavy role in the doings of Baton Rouge.
In 2011, Vitter’s super PAC ensured that Republicans retained their majority in both chambers. Among the donors that year was the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform ($100,000), which is in lockstep with Vitter today in trying to make it harder for trial lawyers to sue oil and gas and other businesses in Louisiana for polluted lands and coastal loss.
Exactly which Baton Rouge politicians draw Vitter’s ire today is not entirely clear, since he doesn’t identify anyone by name in campaign appearances except Jindal, who is unpopular, scoring an anemic 20 percent approval rating in a University of New Orleans survey released Thursday.
Clearly, the Legislature as a whole has low approval ratings, although a majority of lawmakers won re-election by default this year.
State Rep. John Bel Edwards, Vitter’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 21 runoff, said Vitter’s campaign tactics this year would undermine his ability to get things done as governor.
“The next governor — to be successful — has to form coalitions, not just with a majority but with a two-thirds vote, to pass structural changes into law,” Edwards said in an interview. “It will be very hard to do that if you run a campaign against the people you have to work with. It’s not a recipe for success. He is exactly the wrong person for the job of governor at this time.”