BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - For many politicians, a prostitution scandal would be a career killer. But in Louisiana, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter is a leading contender in the governor’s race - with a campaign built on conservative values.
Many had thought Vitter’s career was over in 2007 when news broke that his number appeared five times in the phone records of Washington’s “D.C. Madam.” Vitter was a freshman senator, but had been in the U.S. House when those calls were made from 1999 to 2001.
While never directly confessing to breaking the law, the married father of four admitted to a “very serious sin in my past,” and said his wife forgave him.
He did not resign, but rather hunkered down for months. He re-emerged as a vocal critic of President Obama, who is highly unpopular in Louisiana, and shored up his conservative base, opposing abortion and gay marriage. In 2010, he handily won re-election.
Eight years after the scandal, Vitter is the front-runner among GOP candidates heading into Saturday’s election and appears likely to reach the Nov. 21 runoff.
But the scandal won’t go away.
An independent PAC trying to elect “Anybody But Vitter” is running ads reminding voters of it, and his rivals in the race regularly allude to it.
Republican candidate Scott Angelle, a state utility regulator, quips Vitter is not only “wrong on fornication,” but also on “education, on medication, on transportation and on litigation.”
Jay Dardenne, the GOP lieutenant governor, built his campaign on the message “I’ll make Louisiana proud” and describes holding office without a “hint of scandal.”
The lone major Democrat in the race, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, asks voters to judge candidates on their personal character and regularly says in speeches: “I will never embarrass you.”
Vitter’s poll numbers have slipped with the attacks. But with Angelle and Dardenne splitting the Republican anti-Vitter vote, the senator is favored to be one of the top two vote-getters in the open primary and is expected to face Edwards in a runoff.
Vitter has chosen to deflect all talk of the scandal. When asked at a candidate forum whether he ever violated state criminal law as an elected official, Vitter angrily dodged, calling it a “gotcha question.”
In a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday, he suggested he - and voters - have moved on.
“I’ve come to learn that life isn’t defined by our falls, our setbacks; it’s ultimately defined by if and how we get up, if we learn from our falls, and grow, and fight, and are redeemed. That redemption motivates me every day - to properly serve people, really stand up for them, fight for them, do right by them,” he said.
New Orleans is known for its laissez-faire attitude and Louisiana for a long streak of colorful politicians, including several with well-known reputations for womanizing, like former Gov. Earl Long, who famously had an affair with stripper Blaze Starr six decades ago.
But Republicans haven’t necessarily fared well in the state amid marital indiscretions. GOP U.S. Rep. Robert Livingston resigned in 1998 after admitting to infidelity. Voters last year refused to re-elect Republican Vance McAllister to Congress after a cheating scandal.
Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge-based pollster who tracks voters’ view of Louisiana politicians, said Vitter has high disapproval ratings - in the mid-40 percent range. However, the prostitution scandal hasn’t shaken Vitter’s core of GOP support in this red state, with many voters believing he will represent their views on social issues and taxes, he said.
“His strength is the religious right and the tea party, and to those voters, something that happened seven years ago doesn’t measure up to the faith and confidence that they have in him, that he’s going to stick with them” on issues that matter to them, Pinsonat said.
Vitter’s opponents say the scandal remains relevant to Vitter’s character. He’s skipped most of the TV debates because, his opponents say, he is trying to avoid those questions.
“Sen. Vitter can run. He cannot hide. There is a shadow cast over him that is not going to fade if he makes it to the second primary, if he makes it to the governor’s mansion. It’s not going to go away. It’s a stain on Louisiana,” Dardenne said at a Monday debate Vitter didn’t attend.
Angelle said Vitter wrote a newspaper opinion piece in 1998 claiming Bill Clinton was “morally unfit to govern” because of his sex scandal.
“So, clearly he believes it’s an issue,” Angelle said.
Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, says the scandal has created a sense of unease that could depress turnout for Vitter.
“It’s just not got good for a campaign to continue to be dogged by those sorts of rumors and questions,” Cross said.
Still, if Vitter makes the runoff and faces Edwards, the Democrat, Louisiana voters’ antipathy for Obama may trump their concern over the prostitution scandal, Cross said.
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