Poll: David Vitter closing in on John Bel Edwards in final days of gubernatorial runoff _lowres

John Bel Edwards, left, and David Vitter

In one sense, not much changed between the start of this year’s governor’s race and Saturday’s primary. We’re down to a two-party runoff, as basic math had long suggested.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards had the Democratic field to himself, and his 40 percent showing, while impressive and high enough to place him first Saturday in quite a few parishes, is in line with general party preference in Louisiana. This is a state that hasn’t voted Democratic since former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu won re-election in 2008, and despite her well-established role as a Washington rainmaker, even she couldn’t overcome her membership in President Barack Obama’s party six years later. Vitter’s loyalists orchestrated Landrieu’s defeat to Bill Cassidy, and he wasted no time Saturday night in laying similar groundwork, even arguing that a vote for Edwards would be “the same as” a vote for Obama.

Also right in line with overall patterns was the total showing for the three major Republicans, U.S. Sen. David Vitter and his vanquished rivals, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. The three drew a collective 57 percent, and despite the once-dominant Vitter’s disappointing 23 percent total Saturday, he’ll still win in a rout if the electorate’s general party preferences hold.

Yet rather than going through the motions, Edwards and Vitter are gearing up for an epic fight.

So much has changed that many smart political thinkers are now viewing the race as too close to call — or even, amazingly enough, giving Edwards an edge. The Washington-based Cook Political Report has moved it into the toss-up column, based on Vitter’s weak showing, his high negative ratings in polls, his membership in an unpopular Congress and his similarities to Gov. Bobby Jindal, despite their mutual disdain. If Vitter’s plan is to tie Edwards to Obama, Edwards is ready to give it right back. In his election night speech, he invoked the governor’s name on eight occasions, while Vitter mentioned Obama seven times.

University of Louisiana at Monroe political scientist Joshua Stockley said he’s as surprised as anyone to now be giving Edwards an edge. He bases his assessment on history — specifically the fact that when a candidate has gotten 40 percent of the vote and outperformed the next highest-performing competitor by more than 5 percent, that first-place primary finisher almost always won the runoff — as well as the race’s specifics. Edwards performed well despite low turnout in highly Democratic minority precincts, Stockley said, and is seen as generally positive in demeanor and middle-of-the-road on issues. Vitter has “very high unfavorables,” Stockley said, and he may have trouble wooing supporters of Angelle and Dardenne, each of whom repeatedly called the senator out for dishonest attacks.

I’m not quite ready to go that far, given how much of a punch Obama-themed attacks have provided in recent years. I say that even though Jindal’s record is far more relevant to the Governor’s Office than Obama’s and even though there isn’t that much room between the two runoff candidates on many issues.

The biggest danger to Vitter is the possibility that voters will focus on personalities instead.

Here, Vitter’s got big problems: over his divisive style, the old prostitution scandal that opponents won’t let die and a stunning new development with reports that his campaign was paying a private investigator to monitor supporters of his adversaries. This last news came to light a day before the primary, when an investigator on his payroll was caught eavesdropping on Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, state Sen. Danny Martiny, lawyer John Cummings and private investigator Danny DeNoux at a Metairie coffee house. Normand, a Dardenne supporter, had the investigator arrested for trespassing after he fled through some nearby residential yards, and Vitter’s staff put out a statement that denied illegality but acknowledged the surveillance against a “business associate and major donor” of Edwards, an apparent reference to Cummings.

No matter how the legal side of the juicy drama plays out, there has to be an “ick” factor to the idea that a politician would resort to such tactics — particularly a politician who already has a well-earned reputation for cynical maneuvers.

And sure enough, Edwards pounced. On election night, he reminded listeners that he’d complied with the code of honor at West Point and claimed that Vitter “wouldn’t last five minutes” there.

Saturday’s dramatic results suggest many voters would agree. The big question going forward is whether they care about that more than they care about the party label after the next governor’s name.

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