Friday, March 06, 2009

Louisiana Senate: Vitter Breathes Easier?

By Nathan L. Gonzales

With a handful of potential primary and general election challengers taking a pass, Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) road to re-election in 2010 now looks a little clearer than it did last week.

Still, Vitter’s political rehabilitation after being tarnished by his ties to a prostitution scandal is far from certain, and the lack of public polling on the Republican incumbent leaves some question as to his true electoral strength.

Late last week, former Rep. John Cooksey (R-La.) was reportedly interested in taking on Vitter in the primary. But the former 5th district Congressman announced Monday that he is not running, in a statement that included some nuance.

“While I do not always agree with David Vitter’s position on social issues, I believe David Vitter does a good job representing the people of Louisiana on fiscal matters,” Cooksey said in a statement to the Concordia Sentinel. “If David Vitter emerges as the Republican nominee in the 2010 Senate race in Louisiana, I will vote for him.”

It was never clear that Cooksey’s candidacy was more than idle chatter. Lee Fletcher, the former Congressman’s chief of staff and campaign manager, confirmed Monday that he had had no contact with his former boss about a potential Senate race. Fletcher, now chief of staff for freshman Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), lost the 2002 open-seat race to replace Cooksey, who left to run for Senate.

Cooksey co-hosted a Washington, D.C., fundraiser for Vitter late last year, along with former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D), the entire Republican Congressional delegation at the time and a considerable list of former lawmakers, including ex-Reps. Bob Livingston (R-La.) and Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

The “Mardi Gras in December” event was one step in Vitter’s plan to dissuade potential challengers. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) attended the event but has not yet endorsed Vitter’s re-election bid, a rare move for a sitting governor, considering the Senator is of the same party.

“He’s been doing everything he needs to do,” one GOP insider said of Vitter’s efforts.

While Vitter has been working hard to shore up his base, Cooksey was not the first potential primary challenger to be mentioned.

After Vitter’s name was linked to the D.C. Madam prostitution ring in July 2007 — and his subsequent admission that he committed a “serious sin” — questions about his electability have persisted. But the Senator’s biggest vulnerability is likely in the form of a conservative primary challenge instead of the general election next year. Louisiana has trended more and more Republican in recent years, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won 59 percent of the vote there in the 2008 presidential race.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins is considered a potential serious threat to Vitter because of his appeal to social conservatives. But Perkins, a former Republican state Representative from East Baton Rouge who heads up a Washington, D.C.-based conservative group, has said he is less inclined to run and could not be reached for comment Monday.

In the 2002 all-party Senate primary, Perkins finished fourth with 10 percent, while Cooksey was third with 14 percent.

Secretary of State Jay Dardenne (R) has said he is being encouraged to consider the race, but he doesn’t appear to be taking steps toward a run, either.

Thus far, it appears Vitter has effectively fended off primary challenges before they begin, in part because of his strong fundraising. He has done a good job of securing the support of major donors in the state, according to one GOP operative, in a race where a primary challenger would need at least $1 million to be competitive. Vitter showed more than $2 million in his campaign account at the end of last year.

Knocking off Vitter, who became the first popularly elected Republican Senator in Louisiana history in 2004, won’t be easy. No Senator in the state has been defeated for re-election, going back to World War II.

“He’s traveled all over the state on a regular basis holding town-hall meetings in each of Louisiana’s 64 parishes each Congress, and his votes reflect that he is in tune with representing the best interests of the state,” Vitter spokesman Joel DiGrado said.

But even with the strong fundraising, Vitter’s electoral strength has not been substantiated by public polling numbers — though that should change soon.

The liberal Democratic Web site will be releasing new Louisiana Senate numbers later this week, including hypothetical primary matchups as well as general election numbers and favorable and unfavorable numbers.

Until now, polling has been scarce and private. One poll apparently shows Vitter with strong re-election numbers, while other private surveys have shown him with virtually even favorable and unfavorable ratings. More recent polling conducted in state legislative races in Louisiana confirms that Vitter has some work to do to improve his image.

Vitter is “vulnerable to a legitimate challenge,” according to one GOP insider, “but where is the legitimate challenger?”

The Republican Senator appeared to dodge another bullet when Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) told the Thibodaux Daily Comet on Sunday that he is unlikely to run.

Melancon, the only Democrat in Louisiana’s seven-member Congressional delegation and co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, is viewed as Vitter’s greatest potential general election challenger because of his ability to appeal to conservative Democrats who often vote Republican in federal races.

Even without Melancon, Democrats are still not likely to give Vitter a pass. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu [D-La.]), Shaw Group Chief Executive Officer Jim Bernhard, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and former Rep. Chris John are mentioned on the Democratic side, but none of them is seen as initially as strong as Melancon. John, who is now head of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, finished second behind Vitter in the 2004 all-party primary, garnering only 29 percent to Vitter’s 51 percent.

“Between Sen. Vitter’s past and his extremist right-wing voting record, Sen. Vitter is vulnerable this cycle. While there was a lot of hype from the other side about what a competitive race Sen. Landrieu was going to have [in 2008], she won by a very comfortable margin,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Eric Schultz said. “We believe Sen. Vitter doesn’t represent Louisiana’s mainstream values. He’s ethically challenged, and between now and Election Day, will have many questions to answer.”

This story first appeared in Roll Call on March 3, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.