Thanks to Louisiana, our ’15 election season isn’t over yet. Voters will choose a new governor 11 days from now, which affords us the opportunity to slurp some of the spicy political gumbo that Louisianans are famous for. In fact, they’ve just cooked the hottest TV ad of the year.
It’s an attack on the Republican gubernatorial candidate, David Vitter. The name is probably familiar. He’s a U.S. senator who launched his Washington career as a paragon of family values — until he was outed in ’07 as a serial patron of prostitutes. Phone records conclusively linked him to a D.C. call-girl operation run by a madame named Deborah Jeane Palfrey. But somehow Vitter survived. He tersely apologized (for what he called “a very serious sin”), stonewalled the press, his wife stood by him, and he won re-election in ’10. The same kind of hooker scandal that had doomed New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer appeared to be dead in Louisiana.
But no. Vitter’s enemies within his own party resurrected the scandal this fall, and now his Democratic opponent, a state lawmaker named John Bel Edwards, has released an ad that alleges that Vitter disrespected dead American soldiers in his pursuit of hooker sex.
See it for yourself: “The choice for governor could not be more clear. John Bel Edwards, who answered our country’s call and served as a Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division – (scary music begins) or David Vitter, who answered a prostitute’s call, minutes after he skipped a vote honoring 28 soldiers who gave their lives in defense of our freedom. David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots. Now, the choice is yours.”
Vitter survived his ’07 outing in part because nobody could prove that his sex antics had demonstrably damaged his job performance. Edwards’ ad is the first attempt to forge a link. In the late afternoon of Feb. 27, 2001, congressional Republicans sought to honor 28 soldiers who had died in an Iraqi scud attack 10 years earlier, during Gulf War I. The resolution passed unanimously, but Vitter, a House member at the time, didn’t vote. He was AWOL from the chamber. According to phone records, it appears he was waiting to hear from madame Palfrey – who in fact did call him, less than 40 minutes after the House vote.
Granted, the soldier resolution was only symbolic; it wasn’t as if Vitter had been AWOL on voting for the Bush tax cuts. But Robert Mann, a Louisiana analyst who has long dismissed Vitter’s scandal as politically unimportant, now thinks that Edwards’ TV ad has moved the needle. He writes, “The question for Vitter is this and it is simple: Did he miss a House vote honoring 28 fallen American heroes because he was busy preparing his rendezvous with a prostitute?”
Translation: Louisianans may be tolerant about illicit sex, but dissing soldiers is beyond the pale.
And Vitter clearly realizes the danger. Because he has responded with his own ad; with tinkling piano music, he sits in his kitchen and says, “Fifteen years ago I failed my family. But found forgiveness and love. I learned that our falls don’t define us, but rather how we get up, accept responsibility and earn redemption.” Cue the predictably wholesome footage of family members wearing smiles.
There’s no magic formula for surviving sex scandals, because each case is different. Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign was compelled to quit his job in ’11 not because he slept with a senior aide’s wife, but because the Senate Ethics Committee was probing his dodgy payment of $96,000 to the cuckolded aide. Eliot Spitzer quit his job in ’08 largely because he’d made too many enemies in New York (his $80,000 prostitution tab didn’t help), and the city tabloids were relentless.
But Bill Clinton survived Gennifer Flowers in ’92, and finished his post-Lewinsky presidency with high job performance ratings, largely because he had superb political skills and his enemies were so craven. And David Vitter? He survived in ’07 not just because he apologized for sinning (which often works with conservative Christians), but because the Republicans needed him to stay. If he had resigned, the Democratic governor at the time, Kathleen Blanco, would’ve replaced him with a Democrat.
This time, however, Vitter may well be toast. Louisiana’s election is actually a two-step process; in the first round of voting, back on Oct. 24, Vitter finished second with a paltry 23 percent. Plus, the Republican lieutenant governor has crossed party lines to endorse Democrat Edwards. Plus, voters in Louisiana, as elsewhere, are angry these days at Washington insiders; Vitter has been in D.C. for 10 years. Most notably, as Robert Mann, the Louisiana analyst, points out, the resurrected hooker scandal has made the race “a referendum on Vitter’s personality and character.”
And now comes that vicious ad about the dead soldiers. As the famed southern novelist William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”