U.S. Sen. David Vitter speaks from chamber floor for final time

U.S. Sen. David Vitter reflects on his time serving in the Senate during his last speech from the floor on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. C-SPAN image

Photo via C-SPAN2

The clock is ticking down toward the end of U.S. Sen. David Vitter's long electoral career. And as he's said his goodbyes, Vitter has highlighted a list of accomplishments that, contrary to a notably ideological approach to politics, has skewed toward bipartisan legislation.

That's his record in Congress. His lasting influence on Louisiana politics is something else entirely.

If Vitter hopes to be remembered in his official life for passing major legislation governing the nation's water resources and chemical safety — alongside some of the Senate's more progressive Democrats, it's worth noting — his legacy closer to home is a firmly entrenched Republican domination of state politics.

Louisiana was surely destined to turn red anyway, given its long-standing conservative leanings. But there's no question that Vitter accelerated a dramatic switch that saw Democratic dominance as recently as the mid-2000s give way to almost complete Republican control a few short years later.

He pioneered a strategy to nationalize state politics, linking local Democrats to the far less popular national Democratic Party.

When his signature legislative term limits constitutional amendment, passed in 1995 when he was still in the state House, finally kicked in 12 years later, Vitter used the turnover as an opportunity. He launched a drive to give both houses Republican majorities and helped pull it off by supporting GOP candidates and by convincing conservative Democrats to switch or risk facing Republican opponents.

And even as he worked in Washington, Vitter made sure to keep a hand in state issues and to advise local-level Republicans.

There are some notable ironies underneath this record of success.

One is that, as a self-branded reformer, Vitter spent his early years in office less as a leader, frankly, and more as a loner. His legislative peers — many of whom ultimately lost their jobs once term limits kicked in — considered him a grandstander and self-righteous scold, even if his crusades endeared him to voters. When he first ran for Congress, almost the entire political structure backed his opponent, former governor and GOP elder-statesman Dave Treen.

Another is that he solidified his position as de facto party leader not by joining with the state's other leading Republican, former Gov. Bobby Jindal, but by positioning himself as a counterforce. The break between the onetime allies was personal, stemming from the time Jindal declined to ride to Vitter's defense after his prostitution scandal erupted. But it also positioned Vitter to seize the advantage when Jindal's once-formidable approval rating headed south.

The biggest irony of all, of course, is that Vitter is the one Republican who didn't make it to the promised land.

During his 2015 run for governor, his normally spot-on instincts seemed to fail him. The old prostitution charges proved more damaging than many anticipated, particularly when he found himself up against nice guy and West Point grad John Bel Edwards in the runoff. So did his surface similarities with the equally strident and ambitious Jindal. The upshot is that the only Democrat who's managed to win a statewide office since 2008 is the one that Vitter himself couldn't beat.

That wasn't the end of the story, though. This year's congressional elections found Vitter back in form. Candidates he favored, and for whom he and his former staffers provided significant backing, swept the major open races.

His successor John Kennedy, just like U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy before him, followed the Vitter-pioneered plan of focusing on national partisanship and resisting getting dragged into debates. Another ally, state Rep. Mike Johnson, won one House contest in a campaign managed by a former Vitter aide.

And the sweetest victory of all may have been newcomer Clay Higgins' win over initial favorite Scott Angelle, a public service commissioner and fellow Republican, for the state's other open House seat. Angelle had run in the bitter gubernatorial primary last year and then refused to endorse Vitter in the runoff. A super PAC run by another Vitter aide spent much of that campaign delivering what sure sounded like payback.

That's the Vitter that his fellow Republicans will remember once he finally exits stage right next month. That is, if Vitter doesn't decide he wants to keep a hand in things from the comfort of the private sector.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.