Gubernatorial candidate David Vitter has had his opposition, special interests and the media bring up character issues in his quest for the office. But those alone seem improbable to prevent him from capturing the state’s top job.
These attack ads and statements refer to his confessed “serious sin,” which Vitter never specified but likely concerns his use of prostitution services almost 15 to 20 years ago. Additionally, to reinforce this through guilt by association, other ads publicize the firing years ago of a staffer charged with violence against a woman, although the man pleaded guilty to lesser charges. The tactic by his opponents attempts to induce supporters to abandon him because of untrustworthiness and implicitly appeals to those who condemn any politician for moral failings.
Because of Vitter’s admission, some have accused him of hypocrisy because he has supported policy focused on traditional family values. Republican Vitter’s no-holds-barred political style has earned him bipartisan enmity. That makes his detractors in the GOP all too willing to hope that the unfavorable publicity swings offended voters into the camps of other Republicans gubernatorial candidates.
The problem with this strategy is that the electorate has known about Vitter’s reputed foibles, yet he still commands a majority’s support. These attacks also came in 2010 in his re-election bid for the U.S. Senate, and the electorate shrugged them off. He won in a landslide over his main Democrat challenger and several others. And even if voters unwilling to hand power to a Democrat this time have meaningful GOP options, not enough are likely to defect to keep Vitter him in Washington, for three reasons:
One, Vitter’s career shows his ability to reconcile two natural adversaries, conservatism and populism. This balancing act caters to the populist impulse in Louisiana’s political culture that has not eroded, despite the increased conservative leanings of the public. Vitter’s agenda of reducing the size of government, holding the line on taxes, and promoting social issue preferences such as anti-abortion and pro-Second Amendment views correspond with actions against corporate welfare, profligacy of government elites, and what some see as overbearing government, such as through his opposition now to Common Core.
Two, Louisiana’s electorate has become more sophisticated and likelier to vote on the basis of issues. State voters are less distracted by demagoguery and personalities indicative of the past’s “peapatch politics” and are more prone to vote in their own best interests. The majority appear to agree with Vitter’s agenda.
Three, increasingly issue-driven voting encourages voters to discount personal shortcomings in candidate behavior. That’s been an easier sell with Vitter, since his presumed behavior did not affect his job performance — or spawn mendacity that adversely affected the government’s operation and cost tax dollars, such as with former President Bill Clinton’s intern scandal cover-up. Vitter made his obscure apology, and zero evidence has surfaced that he has slid back on it. While Louisianans historically might have had a soft spot for elected rogues, many empathize with genuine contrition and attempts at redemption as in Vitter’s case. Some may see Vitter as not entirely admirable, but to them his policy rectitude and record more than compensate for that shortcoming.
Unless some new revelation about personal unsavory behavior by Vitter emerges, this line of attack will likely prove ineffective.
A results-oriented electorate might think he’s imperfect, yet is trustworthy in running and taming government. Since the majority believes that he reflects its views well, if he eventually loses, his defeat won’t be as a result of the current adverse publicity.
Last week, I wrote that in 2011, Lee Barrios ran as a Democrat for a seat on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. In fact, she ran without a party label. I regret the error.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics (http://www.between-lines.com) and, when the Louisiana Legislature is in session, another about legislation in it (http://www.laleglog.com). Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.