Democrats who want to unseat Sen. David Vitter — a family-values Republican caught up in a prostitution scandal — plan to shape a campaign that will drive a wedge between the incumbent and female voters.
Their goal is to paint Vitter as a man who is simply insensitive to women. What’s hard to predict at this stage, though, is whether that kind of message can compete for attention with pocketbook issues during a tough economy.
“If they want to go down that path, I think they are in some sense saying they don’t think voters are as smart as they really are,— Vitter media consultant John Brabender said. “They are saying that voters are going to look at one incident in David Vitter’s life … and that’s how they are going to determine their vote.
“I think that is insulting to voters,— he added.
As Democrats have gone about introducing their Senate prospect, Rep. Charlie Melancon, to voters outside of his 3rd Congressional district base, they’ve spent a good deal of time highlighting what Melancon spokesman Jeff Giertz calls the “sharp contrast— between Melancon and Vitter on issues that affect women.
For instance, Melancon’s camp — with state and national Democrats on the same message — touted Vitter’s insensitivity toward women this fall when he was one of 30 Republicans who voted against a measure that would bar the military from contracting with companies that prohibit their workers from suing over workplace disputes, including charges of sexual assault.
A rape victim confronted Vitter over that vote, and video of the town hall incident circulated on the Internet and showed up on local news reports.
In light of that, Democrats say Vitter is beginning to realize just how weak he is with female voters.
And it is through that prism that Democratic operatives viewed his vote last week to become one of just three Republicans to support legislation within the health care bill that would provide free mammograms as a preventive service covered in health insurance plans.
The amendment had been panned by pro-life groups — a constituency that Vitter normally champions — which fear it could lead to federal abortion funding.
Vitter’s office took exception to attempts to paint his vote as pandering to women.
“Breast cancer prevention has been a priority for Sen. Vitter since his earliest days in Congress for many reasons but none more personal than his own family’s bout with the disease,— said Vitter spokesman Joel DiGrado, who pointed out that the Senator’s mother-in-law had suffered from the disease. “It’s a sad reflection on the coarse and cynical nature of modern campaign politics for the Democrat political operatives to try and throw mud on the Senator’s successful efforts to … protect women’s access to mammography.—
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Eric Schultz responded to those charges with a not-so-subtle reference to Vitter’s name showing up during the 2007 investigation of the “D.C. madam.—
“This isn’t the first and won’t be the last time David Vitter attacks Democrats as an attempt to hide from his own transgressions,— Schultz said.
Brabender countered that Democrats are taking personal shots at Vitter because they have little else to base a campaign on. “They want to talk more about David Vitter because what they don’t want to talk about is the Obama-Pelosi-Melancon team,— he said.
If Vitter’s name hadn’t surfaced during the “D.C. madam— case in 2007, he probably would not be considered vulnerable at all in 2010.
Once considered one of his party’s brightest rising stars, Vitter is a staunch conservative in a state that has been trending more Republican in recent years.
And yet he hasn’t been able to break the all-important 50 percent barrier in four public polls on the Senate race that have been released this year.
Vitter’s numbers have moved very little from poll to poll, even at a time when Republicans around the country have benefited from an environment that is less hospitable to the party in power.
And Vitter continues to face the potential of a serious primary challenge.
Popular Secretary of State Jay Dardenne (R) is pondering a race against Vitter and told the Baton Rouge Advocate that he might test the waters with his own polling.
Louisiana’s filing deadline isn’t until early July, but Dardenne isn’t the kind of candidate who can self-fund a campaign, so every day that passes without a decision is a potential fundraising day lost. And Vitter isn’t waiting around to gauge the depth of the competition; his campaign brought in more than $1.2 million in the third quarter and pushed his cash-on-hand total to $3.9 million.
Melancon, an anti-abortion-rights, pro-gun-rights Blue Dog Democrat who ran unopposed in 2008, raised $754,000 for his Senate campaign in the third quarter and had $1.8 million in the bank at the end of September.
Republicans believe that Melancon’s record will be a liability in 2010. His vote for the stimulus bill and early support for the Employee Free Choice Act are two of the Congressman’s positions that aren’t likely to go over well in a state that gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a 19-point margin of victory in the presidential race in 2008.
“At this point in time, I’d rather have [a scandal] than voting for the stimulus,— said Louisiana pollster Bernie Pinsonat, who heads Southern Media and Opinion Research and who has worked for Democrats and Republicans in the past.
“[Democrats] are pushing these, what they think are hot-button issues, and I don’t find it in polling,— Pinsonat said. “People down here would rather have their job. They don’t want unions, they don’t want health care reform and they certainly don’t like [President Barack] Obama. It’s like [Democrats] are desperate for some issue.—