Grace Notes: Senator-popularity ranking hints that David Vitter made the right call _lowres

U.S. Sen. David Vitter

David Vitter’s got it all wrong, strategy-wise.

“Voting for John Bel Edwards is the same as voting for Barack Obama as governor of Louisiana,” Vitter said Saturday night.

Not really, given that Edwards is a social conservative far from Obama’s views on a number of issues, but it’s a forecast of the Vitter runoff campaign.

Having scraped into the runoff with 23 percent, a far cry from polls earlier in the year, Vitter banks on a tried-and-true theme because it has worked for him. He won re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2010 despite a personal scandal by raising the cry against the president among conservative Louisiana voters. His protégé, Joel DiGrado, was mastermind of the 2014 Senate race in which Bill Cassidy thumped Obama — although technically it was Mary Landrieu on the ballot.

What could go wrong?

That 23 percent, when Edwards won 40 percent in a low primary turnout, ought to be a warning for a Harvard graduate and former Rhodes scholar to do some serious thinking that goes against the conventional wisdom.

The latter says GOP voters who cast ballots for Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne are perhaps today unhappy about the ruthless trashing of their candidates by Vitter’s attacks. But they will return to the fold in the run-up to Nov. 21, helped along by generous helpings of Obamaphobia.

A famous politician once said all politics is local. “Those days are over,” said Mike Henderson. “Over.”

Henderson is a political scientist and pollster at LSU. He told the Press Club of Baton Rouge that the natural Republican allegiances of Louisiana voters make it unlikely — not impossible but unlikely — that a Democrat could win statewide.

If that’s the tried-and-true formula for Vitter, it presupposes that the Republican base voter can be motivated against Obama one more time, even as the president fades into constitutionally mandated sunset in January 2017.

Vitter should focus on state issues that matter in Louisiana.

The senator has published campaign literature about his plans for the state. Much of that is boiler-plate nonsense, such as balancing the budget by cutting unneeded state cars. That’s mathematically insipid, from a Rhodie. Some of it, though, represents real proposals for higher education reforms and other pressing state concerns.

Vitter could engage the Democrat in something other than a childish shouting match. Whether it is the limits on lawsuits that Vitter backs against trial lawyers who are backing Edwards, or the curbs on charter schools that Edwards has sought in the Legislature, or the constructive proposals that Vitter has made for higher education policy, the arenas for debate are there. Tax policy is somewhere else that Vitter might make up ground, and, arguably, it’s the most important thing.

That would, of course, require that Vitter show up for debates, and he’s got a poor record on that.

In a pre-primary talk, Democratic strategist James Carville said some Republican states have turned to Democratic governors, and vice versa, when voters think the ruling party is off the rails at the statehouse level. There’s a Republican governor in Massachusetts, for example. And goodness knows that many voters don’t think well of Gov. Bobby Jindal these days.

So Edwards is threatening, with a strong primary performance.

The anti-Obama cry might be enough for the runoff; Henderson says about 85 percent of voters naturally return to their partisan allegiances. In Louisiana, though, Edwards’ lead suggests that a lot of people are thinking of the Democrat as a former Army Ranger and good family man. He got a lot of votes, and, today, Angelle and Dardenne voters probably think of him as a viable governor instead of a crazed liberal.

Maybe Vitter believes he can make that sale, but the conventional wisdom might be riskier than the senator expects.

Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is lkeller@theadvocate.com.