Has U.S. Sen. David Vitter still got it?
I’m not talking about political skill. On that front, even Vitter’s detractors concede his strategic acumen. This is a man who has overcome both his own divisive personality and a major prostitution scandal to win every election in which he’s ever competed, and he’ll enter the gubernatorial race that officially kicks off next week as the favorite to succeed Bobby Jindal.
No, I’m referring to the magic of his early days, the reformist bravado that earned Vitter the devotion of Metairie voters, even as it made him an outcast among his fellow state legislators. One voter I interviewed during his first run for Congress in 1999 pretty much summed up the old Vitter vibe: “I’ve had several politicians tell me they don’t like him,” she said. “I don’t like them.”
Now that Vitter’s finally taken to the airwaves in advance of the October primary, it’s clear he’s trying to tap into that sentiment again.
The new ads purchased by his well-funded campaign and nominally independent super PAC cover lots of ground, from Vitter’s newfound opposition to the Common Core education standards, to his criticism of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s quest to remove Confederate and white supremacist monuments, to rival Scott Angelle’s record, which suggests that Vitter wants to put a quick stop to the public service commissioner’s possible emergence as a top rival.
The most intriguing of the bunch, though, aims to position Vitter as the guy he was all those years ago, long before he became the state’s senior senator, which is about as insider a position as there is.
The television commercial aims squarely at the “politicians in Baton Rouge” who, he says, have created a “massive budget mess” and foisted big tax increases on Louisianians. Vitter vows to eliminate the “special perks and giveaways” he contends politicians enjoy. “And I’ve already given them term limits,” he notes, conveniently skipping over the fact that while he was pushing the issue in the House two decades ago, one of his gubernatorial rivals, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, was carrying the bill on the Senate side.
“They say I’m annoying the politicians,” Vitter concludes. “Must be doing something right.”
That’s all vintage Vitter. The question is whether voters believe that Vitter still exists all these years later, whether the man who’s succeeded to such a degree in politics can still play the anti-politician.
Vitter, in fact, has seemed more interested of late in putting that old image to rest, of proving that he’s matured, that he can, indeed, work with others. He’s built strong bridges to the next generation of Republican lawmakers in Baton Rouge, the group that replaced the old adversaries his term limits initiative forced out.
He’s also racked up some surprising endorsements out of Washington. His newfound allies include U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, who, just three years ago, watched Vitter try to tip an all-Republican runoff toward tea party rival Jeff Landry. Asked recently about the turnaround, Boustany, a likely candidate for Senate should Vitter become governor, said the senator has a good record of “cooperation” and “coordination” with the rest of the state’s delegation.
Also on board is U.S. Rep. and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who joined most of the known political universe in backing fellow Republican Dave Treen against Vitter for Congress in 1999. Asked whether his support signals that Vitter has changed, Scalise said that “David’s proven a lot of people wrong over the years” and quickly moved on.
Vitter’s relationship with the governor never recovered after Jindal offered less-than-enthusiastic support when news of Vitter’s “serious sin” broke in 2007. But running against Jindal’s record is an easy call for all the gubernatorial candidates, given his anemic approval rating.
Attacking politicians in general — a strategy that also targets his possible future partners in governance — is a whole different matter.
I can only guess that Vitter’s team is looking at polls showing that voters hated what they saw during this year’s legislative session and aren’t willing to give lawmakers a pass, despite the limited options Jindal gave them (that, as much as the prospect of a new governor who promises to go after sacred cows, has got to worry everyone on the fall ballot). He’s probably watching the national campaign during this summer of Donald Trump, as well. Being an outsider is obviously the “in” thing these days.
If Vitter thinks so, I’d tend to believe it, based on his long track record of correctly assessing the mood during any given election cycle. Whether anyone will think he’s the guy to fill that role, though, is anyone’s guess.