U.S. Sen. David Vitter seemed like a shoo-in to be the next governor during the legislative session six months ago. Political insiders at the State Capitol talked about what he would do when he was elected governor, not if.
Practically no one talks that way anymore.
Two weeks before the Oct. 24 primary, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, the lone major Democrat, has eclipsed Vitter in the polls.
And Vitter? He is trying to hold off his two Republican rivals to gain a spot in the November runoff. Edwards is expected to win the other one.
Vitter and a super PAC allied with him have been using millions of dollars from oil and gas and other business interests to broadcast attack ads that bludgeon the two Republicans — Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle — by saying they are not true conservatives.
The Republican Governors Association entered the fray Friday with an attack ad that repeatedly links Edwards to President Barack Obama, who is about as popular among Republicans in Louisiana as Alabama coach Nick Saban is with LSU fans. Obama had a 94 percent negative rating among Republicans in a Southern Media and Opinion Research poll in May.
This is the first attack ad that targets Edwards, who has otherwise watched the Republicans carve up one another.
Vitter has been on the receiving end of attacks financed by a Baton Rouge law firm.
“Every voter says it’s terrible; they hate negative politics,” said Jim Brown, who won five statewide races as secretary of state and insurance commissioner but lost the 1987 governor’s race. “Campaigns use negative ads because they work.”
None of the television ads focus on the biggest issue the next governor will inherit, the $700 million to $1 billion budget deficit, with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the outgoing state Legislature having made the job infinitely more difficult by draining the state’s reserve funds.
Campaign insiders believe Vitter and his super PAC blunted the rise of Angelle with one attack ad that labeled him “Sinkhole Scott,” which linked Angelle to the Bayou Corne sinkhole, and another that portrayed him as a Democrat in Republican clothing and tied him to Obama.
Vitter and the pro-Vitter super PAC turned their firepower on Dardenne in recent days with ads that have attacked him as soft on illegal immigration and for a taxpayer-funded trip to Europe where the lieutenant governor promoted Louisiana tourism. Vitter has been directing more of his attacks at Dardenne than Angelle in recent days, suggesting that he views Dardenne as a greater threat.
Dardenne repeatedly has said Vitter is lying about his record and will say anything to get elected.
“Washington-style politics. I’m tired of it,” Dardenne says in a plain-spoken ad that began airing Friday in an attempt to blunt Vitter. “They make ads to scare us or to bully us.”
Even as Vitter has blooded his opponents, some of it has splattered on him.
“There’s a lot of negativity out there surrounding Vitter,” said John Couvillon, who recently polled the governor’s race for Nexstar, which operates WVLA 33 and Fox 44 in Baton Rouge. Couvillon cited the prostitution scandal, Vitter’s 16 years in Washington and a growing belief that he cannot be trusted for, among other reasons, reversing his position to now oppose the Common Core education standards reviled by conservatives.
“Each in itself would not be debilitating,” Couvillon said. “But combined, it’s a drip, drip, drip against his campaign.”
A poll taken two weeks ago for The Advocate and WWL-TV showed that Vitter’s unfavorable rating has risen to 44 percent. The higher it climbs, the harder it becomes for him to win because voters typically don’t support a candidate they don’t like.
The three attack ads by the Carmouche law firm in Baton Rouge also have taken their toll. Two of them have focused on Vitter’s 2007 admission that he committed a “very serious sin” in connection with the D.C. Madam in Washington.
In the latest ad, a woman looks into the camera, questions whether Louisiana can trust him and concludes by urging Vitter to answer the question: “Did you break the law?” Vitter has failed to answer that question in campaign forums.
Don Carmouche on Friday said this ad will continue to run in the weeks to come.
“Our focus is to be certain that David Vitter not be governor,” Carmouche said.
His law firm has filed one set of lawsuits for Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes that accuse oil and gas companies of destroying wetlands, and dozens of other ones for landowners that say the companies contaminated soil and aquifers. Vitter has made it clear that he would attempt to kill the lawsuits — a view not expressed by his three opponents.
Vitter launched a positive spot on Thursday, where a St. Tammany Parish resident named Kevin Wise identified himself as a disabled veteran and credited Vitter’s office with navigating the federal bureaucracy to secure him a “life-saving” operation at a Veterans Affairs hospital. “Veterans for Vitter. Period,” Wise says as the ad concludes.
The ad not only casts Vitter in a positive light, it also seeks to dampen one of Edwards’ biggest strengths: his background as a West Point cadet and Army ranger who commanded an airborne unit.
“Military retirees — particularly those in Caddo and Bossier parishes who retired after serving at Barksdale Air Force Base — are beginning to take a look at a guy who jumped out of airplanes overseas,” said Buddy Leach, an Edwards supporter and Democrat who ran for governor in 2003.
Brown credits Edwards’ military background as well as his strong anti-abortion positions and pro-gun stance with making him more popular than the typical Democrat in Louisiana.
“John Bel Edwards has run an exceptional race to avoid being lumped as a Democrat,” Brown said. “That’s why he’s running first in the polls.”
Edwards, at every turn, also has criticized the unpopular Jindal, who had a 34 percent approval rating in The Advocate/WWL-TV poll.
In a measure of the change in his fortunes over the past six months, one pro-Edwards state legislator made a private prediction recently that Edwards would best Vitter in a head-to-head match, 53 percent to 47 percent, while a Republican lawmaker not supporting any candidate labeled the race a toss-up.
In the week ahead, Louisiana Public Broadcasting is airing a televised debate on Wednesday night featuring Edwards, Dardenne and Angelle. Vitter is skipping the event but will attend a debate the following night with the three other candidates that Louisiana Tech is sponsoring. It will air on KTBS-TV and will be simulcast throughout the state.
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.