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Vitter’s Governor Race Raises Concerns Over His Senate Seat in 2016

Vitter's gubernatorial bid is proving to be a tough battle. (File Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A narrative that had once defined Vitter as the inevitable leader in the Louisiana governor’s race has flipped, raising concerns about his Senate seat. (File Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign won’t entertain questions about his future should he lose the Nov. 21 runoff.

But plenty of other Republicans are already looking past then to whether Vitter would run for re-election to the Senate in 2016 and the implications of what that means for keeping control of the Senate in their party’s hands.

One national Republican operative told CQ Roll Call that if Vitter does lose the governor’s race, “he’s going to have to have a long look in the mirror and come to the realization that he probably can’t win reelection [to the Senate]. This is a problem for Republicans if he does digs his heels in.”

Louisiana should not be a seat that Republicans have to worry about. President Barack Obama lost the state to Republican Mitt Romney, 58-41, in 2012, and in 2014, Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu lost to Republican Bill Cassidy by 11 points in a runoff. The Senate race is currently rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg-Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.

Typically, outside groups like the National Republican Senatorial Committee provide cash and support for incumbent Republican senators, even in primaries. But Republicans are already playing defense in some of the top Senate battlegrounds — expensive races for which the group would prefer to spend its resources.

“There is a lot of liability out there in terms of races that we’re defending, and you don’t want to add Louisiana to it, that’s for sure,” one Senate Republican strategist said. “That’s got to be a state that Senate Republicans don’t have to worry about in 2016.”

But Democrats are already relishing the opportunity to put Louisiana in play.

“If David Vitter is forced to limp back to the Senate after a damaging loss in the Governor’s race it certainly increases the likelihood of a competitive Senate race in Louisiana next year, said Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The chairman of the NRSC, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said Wednesday, “he’ll be the next governor,” declining to publicly consider the prospect of Vitter losing.

When asked about what Vitter might do if he lost the governor’s race, Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar said he would not discuss that “hypothetical” scenario. But Vitter, who has transferred a large chunk of money from his Senate campaign account to a political action committee supporting his campaign for governor, has only $26,000 in the bank for a Senate re-election campaign.

Vitter was once considered the inevitable replacement for outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal. But after barely surviving a brutal primary campaign, where Republican opponents opened the doors to attacks on Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal, Democrats have been able to capitalize. Sparks flew during a debate on Tuesday in a campaign that has featured allegations of political espionage and commercials that claimed Vitter “chose prostitutes over patriots” when he missed a vote in the Senate.

Recent polling shows Vitter trailing John Bel Edwards, with the Democrat averaging around or above 50 percent and Vitter trailing about 10 points behind. One released Thursday showed Edwards leading by as much as 52 percent to 38 percent, depending on African-American turnout.

If Vitter does lose and decides not to seek re-election, he could either resign in time for Jindal to appoint his successor before Edwards takes office in January, or serve out his term while those in his party who have already lined up to run for his seat get their campaigns going.

Louisiana lawmakers such as Reps. Charles Boustany Jr., John Fleming and State Treasurer John Kennedy have made it known that they are looking at seeking Vitter’s seat, and Republicans there say that field could grow even larger in an open primary. With their support for Vitter, the three have been catering to their constituency of one, Vitter, who, if elected governor, would be able to appoint his successor if he was sworn-in.

As they did in Kentucky, Republicans in Louisiana appear to be counting, at least in part, on President Barack Obama’s unpopularity in the South in their messaging against Edwards. And with Kentucky as an example, where polling repeatedly showed the Democrat with the advantage in a race this month that was ultimately won by Republican businessman Matt Bevin, Louisiana Republicans said that polling results should be taken with an extra grain of salt.

In early voting, which began Saturday, turnout has been higher than it was during the primary in October. According to preliminary numbers released by the Louisiana secretary of State on Wednesday, 20,500 more Democrats have voted than Republicans and they are doing so in Democratic-leaning areas, according to an analysis by Louisiana-based pollster John Couvillon.

The Republican Governors Association, which has been helping lead the attacks on Edwards, did not decide until Wednesday to extend its spending on the television airwaves for the final week of the runoff. But on Thursday, it launched a new advertisement that questioned Edwards’ trustworthiness continuing its effort to tie him to Obama. Last week, the group put $1 million behind a commercial that aimed to ding Edwards as an “Obama liberal.”

In the state on Wednesday, some Republican operatives, citing the fact that the RGA had not renewed its ad spending, began to suggest the group might abandon its efforts in Louisiana, as it did briefly in Kentucky. The suggestion led Robert Mann, a Democratic-leaning political observer and professor at Louisiana State University, to suggest declare Vitter’s campaign dead in a post on Twitter that he subsequently deleted when the RGA revealed its new ad buy.

And Vitter earned a rare endorsement by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the largest pro-business group in the state. But Jindal has refused to endorse, and one of his Republican opponents in the primary, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, went so far as to endorse Edwards in the runoff.

Emily Cahn contributed to this report.


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