Eight years ago, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter was linked by phone logs to the “DC Madam,” Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who ran a high-end escort service in Washington. The revelation followed long-standing rumors about Vitter and prostitutes and prompted the senator to publicly apologize for “a very serious sin in my past.”
Vitter refused to resign, ran for and easily won reelection in 2010, and concluded the scandal was safely in his past. But it wasn’t. Now he’s running for governor of Louisiana and polls show him badly trailing his Democratic opponent – 22 points in the latest one. And the scandal is very much playing a role. John Bel Edwards, the Democratic candidate, has been running an ad accusing Vitter of choosing “prostitutes over patriots.” The basis for the claim: Phone logs show that Vitter spoke with the DC Madam shortly after missing a Senate vote on a resolution honoring soldiers.
Clearly, Vitter is on the ropes and with the election taking place this Saturday, he will need a significant last-minute shift to win the race – and save his career. And his campaign thinks it has found just the issue to pull this off: President Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States.
The plan was already unpopular when Obama announced it more than a month ago. A national poll then found that 53% of Americans opposed allowing the refugees in, while only 41% supported it. In the wake of the Paris attacks, carried out by at least one terrorist who entered France with a mass of Syrian refugees, the issue is now super-charged politically and the level of opposition is likely to rise substantially – especially in red states like Louisiana.
And so Vitter’s campaign late on Monday launched an ad that shows images of the deadly attacks while warning that “Obama’s sending Syrian refugees to Louisiana” and that “John Bel Edwards has pledged to work with Obama to bring Syrian refugees to Louisiana.”
Will it work? The ad seeks to tap two emotional nerves with Louisiana voters – their fear of terrorists potentially slipping into the country and their profound distrust of Obama. This is a state, after all, where the president barely cracked 40% in his 2012 reelection campaign and one that – like much of the South – has aligned itself even more firmly with the GOP during the Obama presidency. Currently, both of Louisiana’s U.S. senators are Republicans, along with five of its six House members. The GOP controls both legislative chambers as well.
The key to the GOP’s rise in Louisiana, and in the rest of the South, has been the emergence of stark racial divide when it comes to partisan politics, with whites overwhelmingly backing Republicans and blacks almost universally supporting Democrats. In 2008, for instance, John McCain won 84% of the white vote in the state, while Obama carried 94% of the black vote. Because whites outnumber blacks overall, that translated into a 19-point victory for McCain statewide. (There is no exit poll data available in Louisiana for the 2012 election.)
That pattern has tended to hold in other elections in Louisiana, accounting for the GOP’s modern dominance in the state. But when it comes to statewide office – as opposed to presidential and congressional races – white voters seem more willing to consider Democratic candidates. That’s what Edwards is benefiting from now. The most recent poll has him grabbing a stunning 42% of the white vote, just five points behind Vitter. Conventional wisdom holds that a Democrat needs 30% of the white vote to win in Louisiana. Lingering distaste for Vitter over the scandal accounts for some of this; so does the profound unpopularity of current Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, whose approval rating in Louisiana now sits at just 20 percent.
So Vitter’s target audience for this ad is clear: white voters who don’t like Obama and who are suspicious of the national Democratic Party but who are now supporting Edwards. By explicitly linking his Democratic opponent to Obama on such an inflammatory issue, Vitter is hoping to drive Edwards’ white support under 30%. If he can pull it off, he will have authored a playbook that will surely be copied by Republicans over the next year.