Updated: 5:46 p.m. | Among some Republicans in Louisiana, Republican Sen. David Vitter’s candidacy for governor is drawing comparisons to an election with an unpopular nominee more than two decades ago that divided the party.
“What I keep hearing from folks – neighbors and other parents at the school – is, ‘this is going to be the first time since 1991 that I vote Democrat. I just can’t vote for that guy,’” said one Louisiana Republican operative. The Pelican State – with its free-for-all, jungle primary system – has a unique history of troubled nominees and intra-party feuds. During the 1991 race, for example, state Rep. David Duke – a man who openly associated with Nazi groups and served as the grand wizard of Ku Kluk Klan during the 1970s – was the party’s standard-bearer for governor.
That time, he earned the rebuke of Republicans , including President George H.W. Bush. Duke’s Democratic opponent, former Gov. Edwin Edwards, was endorsed by several Republican leaders who deemed Duke’s candidacy unacceptable, even after Edwards had stood trial over corruption charges just a few years earlier. During the campaign, campaign slogans emerged that said, “Vote for the Lizard, not the Wizard,” and, “Vote for the Crook.”
Edwards – a colorful character who bragged constantly about his escapades with gambling and younger women – famously joked he would not falter in politics unless he was caught “in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.” Eventually, though, his antics caught up with him: In 2000, he was convicted of racketeering, extortion and fraud which got him seven years behind bars. But, after he was released in 2011, he reemerged, first with a reality show , and then in politics to run for Congress in 2014. Despite his history, he beat three other Republicans in the primary before losing in the runoff to Republican Garrett Graves.
In 1979, the Democrats had their own intra-party problem. Edwards had reached a term-limit and could not immediately seek re-election. After a bruising primary, all the losing Democratic candidates endorsed the Republican, Dave Dreen, over the unpopular Democrat Louis Lambert. Treen won, and was beat by Edwards four years later.
Of course, Vitter’s personal woes are much different from Duke’s in the 1990s or Edwards’. His involve allegations that he was involved with prostitutes in Washington and Louisiana.
But, like the state’s politicians of yesteryear, he has managed to receive vocal outrage from some in his party. On Thursday, Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, a Republican who was eliminated from the state’s gubernatorial race in the jungle primary last month, endorsed Democrat John Bel Edwards over Vitter for governor.
“The Republican brand has been damaged,” Dardenne said . “David Vitter will further damage that brand.”
Dardenne’s endorsement of the 2015 election’s Edwards came a day after the Vitter campaign rolled out an endorsement of its own from former Republican Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster. In a statement, Vitter said Thursday, “We’re very excited about our campaign and the tens of thousands of conservative Louisiana voters who have jumped on board in the past week, including so many that voted for Jay.”
While Vitter responded politely, Dardenne’s endorsement earned a message of stern disapproval from Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere, who called it “an act of betrayal” to the GOP.
The race has split Dardenne’s team, which, along with supporters of Republican Scott Angelle, came up short in the October primary. Earlier this month, Dardenne’s spokeswoman, Marsanne Golsby , announced her support for Edwards. But on Monday, Dardenne’s former campaign manager, Jay Vicknair, started working for Vitter.
In the primary, Dardenne came in fourth with 15 percent of the vote, trailing Angelle’s 19 percent and Vitter’s 23 percent. Edwards got 40 percent in the primary.
Vitter’s troubles, a Republican operative there said, seem “to be a combination of prostitutes and personality. People think he is mean.”
Still, Louisiana Democrats said Thursday they expect the gap in the race to narrow. Already, the Republican Governors Association has doubled-down on the messaging it started in the primary trying to tie Edwards to President Barack Obama, re-upping it with a $1 million advertising buy over the weekend.
The anti-Obama strategy that has worked in other states, but even with the ads on air, Edwards pulled 40 percent of the vote in the primary. The reality on the ground, said Beau Tidwell, a spokesman for the Louisiana Democratic Party, is that Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is deeply unpopular in the state , has “tarnished the Republican Brand.”
“Jindal is a bigger problem for Vitter than Obama is for John Bell Edwards,” Tidwell said.
Jindal has not endorsed in the runoff.
As the race has progressed, Vitter’s jabs at Edwards have only become sharper. He released a television commercial accusing Edwards of wanting to let “thugs” out of prison. The ad was criticized by some in the state for its depiction of African Americans.
In response, the Edwards campaign launched its own ad featuring his endorsement by the Louisiana Sheriffs Association. In the spot, local sheriffs offered support for Edwards law enforcement credentials.
“The attacks against John Bel Edwards are not only false – they’re irresponsible,” said one sheriff. Another said, “John Bel has never supported releasing dangerous criminals. He understands criminal justice reform is an important issue in Louisiana, one supported by both Republicans and Democrats.”
David Vitter Trails Democrat in Louisiana Governor’s Runoff
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National Republicans Looking Ahead to November Showdown for Vitter
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