If the past couple of weeks around south Louisiana had a soundtrack, it would be the music of Allen Toussaint, the beloved New Orleans songsmith who died earlier this month, and whose vast catalogue has saturated the airwaves ever since.
Maybe it’s fitting then, that one of Toussaint’s most pointed songs could double as the theme to the last few weeks of Louisiana’s gubernatorial race. Toussaint wrote “On Your Way Down” back in 1972, but it could just as easily have been inspired by U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s epic collapse.
“Sunrise, Sunset. Since the beginning, it hasn’t changed yet,” the song’s opening verse goes. “People fly high, tend to lose sight. You can’t see very clearly when you’re in flight.”
Then comes the chorus: “It’s high time that you found, the same people you misuse on your way up, you might meet up on your way down.”
That basically describes Vitter’s plight as his seemingly inevitable bid for governor disintegrated, and the legions of enemies he’d made during his 24-year career gathered to enjoy the performance — and, in some cases, write a few new verses themselves.
Until recently, Vitter had lorded over Louisiana politics. With Gov. Bobby Jindal AWOL in Iowa, the senator emerged as the de facto leader of the dominant Republican Party. He was a fundraising juggernaut, a mentor to GOP lawmakers in Baton Rouge, and at times, a bully who threatened to punish those who fell out of line.
That Vitter found himself in this position at all was a testament to his talent, for he’s spent much of his career poking fellow politicians in the eye. His early years as an ethics crusader in the state House earned him the devotion of his Jefferson Parish constituents, even as his self-righteous, grandstanding streak infuriated fellow pols. In Congress, he used the same tactics to pursue more partisan ends, but his reputation persisted.
That was due in no small part to his electoral success. Vitter ran canny campaigns that tapped into the prevailing mood. In his first run for Congress in 1999, most politicians backed opponent Dave Treen, so Vitter played the outsider taking on the good old boys. At the tea party movement’s peak in 2010, Vitter muted attacks based on his 2007 prostitution scandal by turning the election into a referendum on President Barack Obama. Under Vitter’s tutelage, Bill Cassidy used the same tactic against Vitter’s colleague Mary Landrieu, to the same effect.
Vitter hauled out the same script this year. That it fell flat in the state context, against people with far more tenuous connections to the president and his policies, was just one sign that he was way off his game.
The rest of the campaign proved just as tone deaf. Vitter’s ads — including his attacks on fellow Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne, and his claim that Democrat John Bel Edwards wanted to release 5,500 “dangerous thugs” from prison — were ugly, and not at all credible. The divisive, Washington-style tone played poorly among those who were sick of Jindal’s cynical approach, and ready for someone focused on dealing with the tenuous state budget.
Then there was the re-emergence of Vitter’s prostitution scandal, which his opponents skillfully used to question his character. And the news that he’d hired a private investigator to spy on his adversaries, including private citizens, reinforced the sense he was just creepy — or, as Edwards tagged him, “Nixonian.” Late-season attempts to reintroduce himself, including a mea culpa ad in which a camo-clad Vitter stood awkwardly next to “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson, just reinforced a growing air of desperation.
Once the sense of inevitability was punctured, critics chimed in at high volume and at dizzying speed.
Fourth-place primary finisher Dardenne quickly crossed party lines and signed on with Edwards, and third-place candidate Angelle withheld his endorsement.
Vitter’s old Jefferson Parish enemies re-emerged, including Republican Sheriff Newell Normand, who caught Vitter’s spy red-handed and cut a powerful ad noting that “David Vitter is all about David Vitter, he’s not about anybody else.”
Jindal dropped his presidential campaign days before the election, came back home and stepped on Vitter’s last-minute message. His advisers publicly bashed Vitter for holding a press conference questioning Jindal’s plan to close the latest budget gap without offering a solution of his own, and pushed the story line that Vitter’s impending loss reflected his own damaged brand, not the GOP’s or Jindal’s. The two have openly battled ever since Jindal didn’t jump to Vitter’s defense when the prostitution story broke, and Vitter retaliated by holding a press conference with wife Wendy just as Jindal was announcing for governor.
Republicans in Washington put out word that they wouldn’t have Vitter’s back should he lose the governor’s race but insist on running for re-election next year. He announced on election night that he would not.
And Vitter’s own base turned on him. Jefferson Parish gave Edwards 51 percent of the vote.
Finally, there were the voters across the state, a stunning 56 percent of whom declared themselves done with the man.
That goes for the politicians who packed Edwards’ gleeful election night party. The crowd included many smiling legislators, both Democrat and Republican, along with plenty of Vitter adversaries from the old days, Landrieu and that other Edwards, former Gov. Edwin.
Ironically, it was the underestimated Edwards who correctly diagnosed the public’s mood this time around. On election night, he declared that Louisiana had rejected scorn and negativity, reiterated his promise to never lie to or embarrass his constituents, and vowed to answer to everyone in the state, whether they voted for him or not.
Toussaint actually has a song that’s on point here too, one that opens with this optimistic sentiment: “Now is the time for all good men to come together with one another.”
Politics generally pushes in the other direction, of course, particularly in times of scarce resources. The tune’s title, “Yes We Can Can,” is itself a warning that intentions only get you so far.
Still, as Louisiana enters the new Edwards era, it’s a pretty happy place to start. Especially when you consider the alternative.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.