Prostitution And Fears About Syrian Refugees Dominate As Louisiana Heads To The Polls
It's Election Day in Louisiana again, and voters have the same crappy choices they usually end up with.
In a combination that one could probably only find in Louisiana, a combination of allegations of sleaze and corruption and a last minute focus on terrorism and Syrian refugees are dominant as voters in the Pelican State head to the polls to decide who will succeed Bobby Jindal as Governor:
BATON ROUGE, La.— A year after Louisiana voters booted their last Democratic statewide officeholder by double digits, the dirtiest political race in America comes down to whether a lurid but decade-old sex scandal is enough to pry Southern conservatives away from the Republican Party, even amid renewed fears of terrorism at home.
After an in-the-mud, four-week runoff also full of loaded attacks on crime, race and religion, Republican Sen. David Vitter faces a potentially embarrassing rebuke in Saturday’s election by voters in a GOP-dominated state. Democrats ran their campaign based on the theme that Vitter is untrustworthy, implicitly and explicitly raising the fact that Vitter’s name had shown up in a 2007 investigation of a D.C. prostitution ring.
“This isn’t about forgiveness or redemption,” Democratic candidate John Bel Edwards told POLITICO after a campaign stop in the small town of Crowley last week. “There is a Christian obligation to forgive people when they seek forgiveness. There is no obligation to forget or to vote for people, and his error in judgment was so severe.”
But Vitter’s fate is not sealed, despite trailing Edwards by double digits in most polls since they both advanced to the runoff in October. Suddenly, in the final week of the election, fears of terrorism surged after the attacks in Paris, giving Vitter the opportunity to shift the conversation onto different ground.
It’s a fittingly unpolished finale after a campaign when Edwards accused Vitter of choosing “prostitutes over patriots” and Vitter accused Edwards of wanting to release “thugs” into our “neighborhoods,” and both hit the other for not doing enough to block Syrian refugees from settling in Louisiana. “John Bel Edwards has pledged to work with Obama to bring Syrian refugees to Louisiana,” said an announcer in one of Vitter’s ads.
If Republicans hoped to turbo-charge a Vitter comeback on fear of terrorism, though, that comeback started with a more good-natured emotion: forgiveness. After ignoring or deflecting public questions about his prostitution scandal for years, Vitter finally began addressing the issue directly in recent weeks as Edwards’ strength became clear.
“I’ve spoken about this directly with the people of Louisiana for some time,” Vitter said at a debate here Monday night when asked about the scandal, which saw his phone number linked to a D.C. prostitute who catered to the rich and powerful. “I’ve apologized to them directly and just as important, I’ve committed to rebuild their trust.”
Vitter went on to describe telling his children about what he did in the “darkest moment of my life.” He said his failure and redemption were “the most important experience of his life.”
During an interview after a campaign stop in the small city of Crowley, Edwards told POLITICO asking for forgiveness isn’t enough.
“He compromised himself, he did not do his job as congressman, and may have committed a crime in order to engage in these extracurricular activities he was engaged in,” Edwards said. “And that there is more than something that is just between him and his wife.”
Democrats in the state are nervously optimistic about their chances of taking the governor’s mansion. Polls have typically shown Edwards with leads of about 10 percentage points, but an automated survey released Friday showed the Democrat earning just 49 percent of the vote to Vitter’s 44 percent. That comes just after the terrorist attacks in Paris, which shifted the entire conversation of the race to the issue of whether Syrian refugees should be allowed to settle in Louisiana. Both candidates say no, and both candidates claim the other is not taking a hard enough line.
For his part, Edwards isn’t accepting blame for the race’s negative tenor. “After months of him spending millions of dollars lying about my record, I decided to tell the truth about him,” Edwards said.
And references to the scandal are not rare when Edwards is on the stump or in debates. When Vitter notes Edwards has low scores from pro-business groups, Edwards’ standard retort is “the only person I give 100 percent to is my wife.”
The idea that a race for Governor of Louisiana would come down to a candidate who has hit hard on his opponents connection to a notorious prostitution scandal while the other candidates seeks to stoke fears of terrorism among war refuges that are largely not supported by any evidence whatsoever shouldn’t really come as a surprise. After all, this is the same state where, some twenty-four years ago, voters were faced with a choice between former Governor Edwin Edwards, a man with a reputation for corruption and self-dealing, against David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who had developed a national reputation as a blatantly open racist. As one popular bumper sticker during the campaign put it, Louisiana voters were told by Edwards supporters and Duke opponents to “Vote For The Crook, It’s Important.” This time, voters are being asked to choose between a Democrat who, in many ways seems largely out of step with a state that has become more and more conservative over the years, and a U.S. Senator with perhaps the most disreputable personal reputation of anyone in recent member in the state. In other words, it’s Louisiana politics as usual, and while John Bel Edwards, no relation to Edwin, has been hitting hard on Vitter’s personal failings, Vitter has spent the better part of the last week trying to exploit the attacks in Paris and the refugee crisis to save a campaign that has looked dead in the water ever since the Jungle Primary in October.
Looking at the polls, things still seem to look good for Edwards. All three polls taken since the Jungle Primary and listed at RealClearPolitics show Vitter trailing Edwards by double digits, for example, but it’s worth noting that all of those polls were taken before the Paris attacks and Vitter’s change in strategy. The broader list of polls at Pollster shows Edwards continuing to lead in polling taken over the past week, and give him an average lead of precisely ten points over Vitter, although it’s worth noting that one recently released poll, one taken by a predominantly Republican polling organization, showed Edwards’ lead cut to four points, The final pre-election poll, though, gives Edwards an eight point lead over Vitter. Potentially helping Edwards heading into today is the fact that Louisiana voters have a largely negative view of outgoing Republican Governor Bobby Jindal. A Morning Consult report released earlier this week, for example, showed Jindal with an approval rating of 35% and a disapproval rating of 60%, numbers that made him second only to Kansas Governor Sam Brownback on the list of the nation’s most disliked Governors. Earlier this month, a University of New Orleans poll showed Jindal’s job approval rating at just 20% while an astounding 70% of respondents disapproved of the job Jindal was doing, and that even a majority of the state’s Republicans disapproved of Jindal’s performance in office. With numbers like this, the potential that Vitter could be harmed by an anti-Jindal backlash seems rather high. The Washington Post’s David Weigel explores that issue in a piece this morning.
Louisiana being Louisiana, it’s hard to know whether voters will let distaste for a rather unadmirable man like Vitter, or fears about Syrian refugees, decide their election. As is often the case with these runoff elections, it will depend to a large degree on voter turnout. Whoever wins, though, they’ll hardly be able to claim a mandate of any kind other than being against Senators who get involved in prostitution rings or being against war orphans.