Fighting for his political life ahead of a runoff election this weekend, Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Vitter has emerged as one of the most ardent opponents of President Obama’s Syrian refugee plan, hoping to ride a wave of terrorism fears to a come-from-behind victory.
The two-term Republican U.S. senator faces Democrat John Bel Edwards in voting Saturday after they emerged as the top vote-getters last month.
The race has been almost all about Mr. Vitter, who entered with high expectations but who has been shaky as he has tried to put behind a murky history with prostitutes and to unify warring factions of the state Republican Party.
The intraparty rift almost kneecapped the 54-year-old’s gubernatorial aspirations in the state’s so-called jungle primary last month. Mr. Edwards emerged as the top vote-getter with 40 percent, Mr. Vitter was second with 23 percent and two other Republicans, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, trailed them.
Mr. Dardenne has since crossed party lines to endorse Mr. Edwards, who held a double-digit lead in polls this week.
Mr. Vitter is belatedly on the offensive, hoping to ride anti-Obama sentiment to a win.
He left the campaign trail to return to Washington, where he pushed legislation to stop the president’s resettlement efforts until stronger safeguards aimed at weeding out attackers are put into place. He also tried to tie Mr. Edwards to Mr. Obama on the issue.
“John Bel Edwards has pledged to work with Obama to bring Syrian refugees to Louisiana,” the narrator says in an ad that the Vitter campaign released this week.
Roy Fletcher, a longtime Republican Party consultant who advised Mr. Angelle in the primary, said the uproar over Syrian refugees has helped Mr. Vitter get his footing in the closing days of the race but that he has his doubts about whether it will be enough to win.
“You are a United States senator, and you can’t get above [23 percent] in the primary and then you are going to win the runoff election? That is pretty hopeful thinking,” Mr. Fletcher said, adding that there is a potential lesson to be learned.
“What this is teaching us is that if you want to win, you have to have a good candidate. You can’t have a flawed candidate,” he said.
Mr. Vitter’s biggest liability has been his involvement in the 2007 D.C. Madam scandal about a high-end prostitution ring in the nation’s capital.
Confronted with phone records showing that he had received calls from the service, Mr. Vitter apologized for “a very serious sin in my past,” though he never elaborated.
The episode made him a polarizing figure in his own party and fueled accusations, including from a member of the Louisiana Republican State Central Committee, that he had an affair with a prostitute in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The accusations were never substantiated.
“It is no surprise that Democrats are not in love with the Republican nominee, but there are also Republicans that don’t care for the senator,” said Nathan Gonzalez, of the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter covering U.S. elections.
Mr. Gonzales said Mr. Vitter might be able to take comfort in knowing that Matt Bevin won the Kentucky governor’s race in a landslide this month after trailing in polls heading into Election Day. But political handicappers said the races are very different.
“Louisiana has a larger African-American voter base that raises Edwards’ support floor,” said Geoffrey Kelly, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “While many Republicans in Kentucky expressed dissatisfaction with Bevin, no major Republican endorsed the Democrat in the race, which has happened in Louisiana. There may be sufficient division within the GOP over Vitter’s standing that enough white voters will back Edwards to put him over the top.”
Mr. Bevin also benefited from being a political outsider — something Mr. Vitter, who has served in Congress since 1999 — cannot claim. Mr. Edwards also did a good job of defending himself early on in the race as a pro-life, pro-gun, Southern Democrat, which could help shield him from Mr. Vitter’s attacks.
“Vitter and Republicans are trying to pin Obama on Edwards and now pigeonholed him as being too sympathetic to Syrian refugees, but Edwards did some good introductory groundwork with voters,” Mr. Gonzales said. “He did a good job of introducing himself before Republicans could defend him, and Republicans are now trying to redefine him, and time is running short.”