Republican Sen. David Vitter said he will not seek re-election next year after his stunning loss to Democrat John Bel Edwards in the Louisiana governor’s race.
“I came up short tonight,” he told supporters at his election night watch party in Kenner, La.
Vitter said he had reached his “personal term limit” and would not run again.
“I’m eager to focus on the important work in the U.S. Senate,” he said. “I’m only going to be doing that for one more year.”
Vitter’s loss was a huge reversal from the beginning of the race, when he was leading by double digits and was viewed by many as the inevitable successor of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. With nearly all the vote counted, Edwards led Vitter, 56 percent to 44 percent.
In his victory speech, Edwards thanked Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who lost in the primary to Edwards and Vitter and subsequently endorsed Edwards, for deciding “like me to put Louisiana first, not self and not party.”
Edwards got more cheers when he announced that Vitter would not seek re-election.
As the results were still coming in, Republicans were already lining up for Vitter’s Senate seat, which is on the ballot next fall. A number of Louisiana Republicans had
made it known that they were looking at Vitter’s seat had he won the governor’s race, including Reps. Charles Boustany Jr., John Fleming and state Treasurer John Kennedy.
A national Republican operative
told CQ Roll Call this month
that a Vitter loss would mean that he was “going to have to have a long look in the mirror and come to the realization that he probably can’t win re-election” in 2016.
Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy said he wasn’t surprised by Vitter’s announcement.
“He’d said several months ago that this would be his terminal job, and once
you’ve taken a position like that it’s hard to go back to your old job.”
Vitter flooded the three-parish New Orleans metro area with robocalls on Election Day, striking a contrite tone: “I humbly ask for your vote.”
Republican strategist James Farwell, who lives in New Orleans and has a long record of working with Newt Gingrich, said Vitter’s defensive TV ads with his family in the campaign’s final days were a sign of how well Edwards’ campaign executed its strategy.
Polls before Election Day showed that Edwards’ attacks on Vitter’s character had hurt, Farwell said. “David would otherwise not have spent a lot of his TV money over last two weeks apologizing for past actions.”
Vitter’s chances in the runoff were, perhaps, diminished before he even began. After limping past his two Republican rivals — Dardenne and Scott Angelle — in the October primary with just 4 points to spare, Vitter consistently trailed Edwards by as much as 10 points in public polls.
The brutal primary severely damaged Vitter’s popularity among Louisiana voters brought back to light details about a ghost of his political past he thought he had gotten past in his 2010 Senate election: His 2007 prostitution scandal.
In October, a former Louisiana prostitute brought forward new allegations about her relationship with Vitter, and Dardenne, in one of the debates, used the scandal to question his trustworthiness: “He’s not only been wrong on fornication, he’s been wrong on taxation and he’s been wrong on education,” he said at the time.
Asked about the impact of the prostitution scandal, Fleming said, “All I can tell you is the other campaign and PACs spent $8 million against him. If you put enough money, libel and slander against someone, it damages their campaign.”
In the runoff, Dardenne and Angelle were featured in a television commercial aired by a Democrat-aligned group, Gumbo PAC, trying to lure other Republicans to support Edwards.
Vitter’s campaign thought it had an opportunity last week, when after the Paris terror attacks, it released a television commercial that attempted to tap into fears about Syrian refugees being placed in Louisiana. Polls tightened in the days following the attacks but the bump for Vitter didn’t last long.
Vitterreleased a commercial on Monday accusing Edwards of pledging to “work with [President Barack] Obama to bring Syrian refugees to Louisiana,” a move that put Edwards on defense. He responded with an ad of his own touting his military experience and his support from the state’s law enforcement associations.
As rain thickened in St. John the Baptist Parish on Saturday afternoon, veteran political consultant Bill Schultz, who works for candidates of both parties across the state, said, “Vitter gained momentarily because of the fear we all have [after the Paris attacks].” But the “fear factor” dissipated after about 48 hours.
“You say, ‘Wait. What does John Bel Edwards have to do with Syrian refugees?’” Schultz said.
Vitter’s campaign spent most of the runoff trying to tie Edwards to Obama and several Louisiana political veterans criticized that strategy.
“Linking him to Obama didn’t work,” Schultz said. “They call it political science for a reason. If advertisement A and B don’t work, you change your message.
“Campaigns are fluid. It’s a red state and Vitter put it all on the line with Obama. If he was running for U.S. Senate, I get it. But the president has nothing to do with the governor’s election.”
Edwards’ win is a rare one for Democrats in the state, who have lost ground during Barack Obama’s presidency. Obama lost Louisiana to Republican Mitt Romney, 58-41, in 2012, and Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu lost to Cassidy by 11 points in 2014.
Jason Berry in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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