Stephanie Grace: We're now learning some 'behind-the-scenes tidbits' from Louisiana governor's race, campaigns _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Gubernatorial candidates U.S. Sen. David Vitter, center left, and State Rep. John Bel Edwards, center right, stand and shake hands Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 after the Together Louisiana Statewide Assembly at Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. Others, from left, are the Rev. Jesse Bilberry (seated), Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, NOVA Workforce Institute graduate Barbara Freeman, Linda Johnson, Plymouth Rock Baptist Church, Fr. Richard Andrus, St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church and Bishop Gregory Cooper, Antioch Full Gospel Baptist Church. The candidates responded to questions on issues like the state budget, health care and workforce development at the event.

How badly did Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s camp want to face Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards in the gubernatorial runoff? So badly that the super PAC set up to bolster his campaign briefly considered using some of the millions it had collected in unlimited donations to help shore up Edwards’ primary campaign.

The governor-elect wound up not needing the boost, so the Fund for Louisiana’s Future stuck to playing “defense,” as Joel DiGrado, the group’s executive director and a former aide in Vitter’s Senate office, explained at a recent post-election discussion at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. That meant making sure neither of the other two Republicans in the race, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, emerged as the one obvious Republican alternative.

“Every week, we had to reassess who we’re beating up,” said DiGrado, who likened the exercise to playing “whack-a-mole on a balance beam.”

That was just one of many juicy, behind-the-scenes tidbits from a pair of Tuesday panel discussions — one with strategists from the four main campaigns and a second with leaders of the two most active super PACs. Portions of the panels will be broadcast on Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s “Public Square” show starting Dec. 16.

The negative tone of the attacks created some bruised feelings and may well have helped sour voters on Vitter, but Democratic consultant Trey Ourso, who headed the pro-Edwards Gumbo PAC, said that didn’t make it a faulty strategy. “I don’t think they had any other play,” Ourso said.

Ourso, in contrast, found himself holding a much stronger hand once Edwards took 40 percent of the primary vote to Vitter’s 23. The Democratic Governors Association smelled blood in the water and decided to put its money behind Edwards. Rather than set up its own operation in the brief four-week runoff period, it sent more than $2 million Ourso’s way. Gumbo PAC’s first move was to air what was probably the single most effective ad of the campaign, a vitriolic tour de force of Vitter’s vanquished Republicans rivals trashing Vitter as “ineffective,” “vicious” and “lying” (Dardenne’s words) and creating a “stench that is getting ready to come over Louisiana,” as Angelle put it.

Gumbo PAC’s polls had found that half of the voters who had backed Dardenne and Angelle would consider supporting Edwards against Vitter, and the idea behind the ad was to “freeze them there,” Ourso said.

Although they were technically not allowed to coordinate, the strategists who worked directly with campaigns agreed during the earlier panel that the commercial had its desired effect. Kyle Ruckert, Vitter’s campaign manager, called it a “good ad” that preserved the status quo and kept the Republicans from regrouping and reuniting. Not that Dardenne and Angelle were ever inclined to endorse Vitter, but with that ad running, they simply couldn’t, said Edwards media consultant Jared Arsement. Mary-Patricia Wray, Edwards’ campaign spokeswoman, added that campaign staffers loved it so much that they would often quote Dardenne and Angelle’s lines around the office.

Fresh off their big win, the Edwards aides recounted the campaign’s early days, when their biggest challenge was to convince their own base that what DiGrado and nearly everyone else assumed — that getting Edwards into a runoff versus Vitter would guarantee a Vitter victory — was wrong. The campaign struggled to raise money, and diehard Democrats told Edwards that “I bled too much for Mary (Landrieu, who lost the 2014 Senate race to Bill Cassidy),” Arsement said.

What helped them see the path, the Edwards aide said, was how well people responded to Edwards’ biography, particularly his West Point education and military service.

Vitter’s past was just as much of an issue as Edwards’, of course. During the primary, Ourso said part of his goal was to create a conversation around the subject, particularly through social media. The idea behind the initial “Anybody But Vitter” campaign, he said, was to “let people who were not fans of David Vitter know they weren’t alone.” Among the group’s challenges was some potential supporters’ fear of retribution from Vitter, he said (DiGrado, who managed Cassidy’s campaign last year, said he heard the same sentiment from those who feared crossing Landrieu).

While DiGrado was focused on defense, he said one area the Super PAC avoided was answering concerns about Vitter’s prostitution scandal.

“I don’t think a third-party group should be talking about … something that raw and personal,” he said.

Instead, Vitter’s campaign launched a series of apology ads late in the campaign, once it became clear that the issue was sticking.

Vitter drew some criticism for waiting so long, but strategists for both campaigns mostly rejected the idea that he could have blunted the impact of Edwards’ notorious “Prostitutes over Patriots” ad had he been more proactive. Ruckert said he didn’t think it would have headed off the attack. Wray agreed — although she did acknowledge that, if Vitter had already addressed the issue, the Edwards commercial might have come off looking more “nasty.”

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.