If nothing else, David Vitter simplified the 2016 U.S. Senate election in Louisiana with his announcement Saturday night after losing the governor’s race that he won’t try for a third term in the Senate next year.
Now that the 2016 election shapes up as an ordinary contest for an open Senate seat, it likely will draw a host of contenders, especially on the Republican side. The unexpected events Saturday will force a major recalculation by those Republicans, but the candidates have fewer uncertainties to deal with.
Had Vitter won Saturday, as was universally predicted a few months ago, he would have been in a position to appoint his own successor in the Senate after taking office as governor in January. That appointment would be a prize plum for anyone interested in winning a full Senate term in 2016, as it would bring with it the advantage of running as an incumbent.
Had the defeated Vitter, a Republican, decided to seek re-election to the Senate, his choice would have raised more questions than it would answer.
Would his lopsided loss Saturday to a little-known Democratic state representative — John Bel Edwards, of Amite — after a campaign that focused on his character flaws have made Vitter unelectable? Would the Republicans, who spent several months cozying up to him in apparent hopes of obtaining the coveted appointment to fill out his term after his anticipated election as governor, have turned against him and challenged him in the open Senate primary? Would Democrats, normally facing long odds in a statewide election, see a chance for a repeat of the perfect-storm governor-race scenario, in which a consensus Democratic candidate matches up against a battered, vulnerable Vitter, who squeezes by Republican challenges to make the runoff?
Vitter’s declaration Saturday night that he has reached his “personal term limit” makes those questions moot (and resolves another potential dilemma for him: He has sponsored legislation in Congress to limit senators to two terms).
No one has formally announced their candidacy for the Senate in 2016.
But two Republicans — U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany, of Lafayette, and John Fleming, of Minden — have said before Saturday’s voting that they intended to run for the Senate if Vitter was not a candidate. A third Republican, state Treasurer John Kennedy, has indicated interest but said Sunday “people have had enough politics for a while.” A fourth, retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, of Madisonville, finished third in the open primary in the 2014 U.S. Senate election as a tea-party candidate and has sustained an active presence through an independent political action committee, or super PAC, called Gator PAC. State Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington, also campaigned for that Senate seat but dropped out early. All five endorsed Vitter for governor and either appeared with Vitter during the campaign or publicly appealed for Republicans to unify behind him.
Boustany has raised nearly $2 million for his 2016 House re-election campaign, and Fleming has taken in $1.5 million (including $525,000 in a personal loan to his campaign). In both cases, those amounts could be rolled into a Senate campaign. Kennedy has about $2.8 million in a state campaign account left over from his easy re-election in the October primary; that money cannot be transferred directly to a federal campaign, but it could be funneled to an existing Kennedy-aligned super PAC that could spend it to elect him to the Senate.
Gator PAC isn’t in that league, reporting contributions of less than $50,000 through June 30. Maness said in a text message Sunday that he will announce his plans “in the near future,” adding, “I strongly believe Louisiana needs a conservative fighter in the U.S. Senate.”
Other potential Republican candidates include the two men who finished behind Vitter in the October primary: Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, who was the first runner-up, and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. Neither endorsed Vitter in the runoff, and Dardenne’s situation is complicated by his crossing-the-party-line endorsement of Edwards.
There are fewer obvious potential candidates in the Democratic side. Edwards is the only Democratic winner of any of the six statewide offices, and the state has voted Republican in the last four presidential elections.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu may be the state’s best-known elected official, other than Edwards, but he may heed the defeat of his sister, Mary, by Republican Bill Cassidy in her 2014 bid for a third Senate term as a lesson in what happens to a Democrat against a Republican who unifies the party. And unlike Edwards, who offered some crossover appeal to conservatives, Mitch Landrieu is not anti-abortion, nor pro-gun nor rural.
But Edwards’ rise from near obscurity demonstrates that long shots can still win, and his success may inspire imitators.
Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter @GregRobertsDC.
For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog/.