David Vitter thought he was a survivor.
He won re-election by 20 points in 2010, 3 1/2 years after his prostitution scandal came to light. It was hard to imagine the scandal coming back to bite him. But six years later, it ended his political career.
Vitter’s demise suggests even sex scandals that have faded are never really put to rest.
That could be a problem for Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais.
Despite pressuring an ex-wife and mistress (who was also a patient) to have abortions, the pro-life Republican has been re-elected twice since first coming to Congress in 2010, albeit just barely winning his primary the second time around.
By the time revelations of his scandal came to light in 2012, DesJarlais had already made it past the GOP primary — the only real contest in the deeply conservative 4th District.
In the 2014 primary, with his personal problems fully aired, DesJarlais struggled to raise money. He defeated state Sen. Jim Tracy by just 38 votes.
In an interview earlier this year, DesJarlais told CQ Roll Call that he thought he had overcome his scandal.
“I think after three election cycles now, [voters have] seen my voting record and the fact that I will represent them appropriately,” DesJarlais said.
Desjarlais’ win might have been narrow, but for some Republicans that primary victory signified that he, even if outspent, still had a following, and that those followers had forgiven him.
“For every period of time you move away from the event, his insulation is, I’ve rectified my sins,” Vanderbilt professor Bruce Oppenheimer told CQ Roll Call Monday. That insulation would seem to thicken the further away from the scandal DesJarlais gets.
But the same was said of Vitter, who told the public in 2007 he had “received forgiveness from God.”
Vitter’s 2010 challenger, Democrat Charlie Melancon, didn’t shy away from the prostitution story. He painted Vitter as anti-woman, hitting him both for frequenting prostitutes and for keeping on staff an aide who allegedly fought his girlfriend violently, with one attack ad titled simply, “The Worst.”
But this fall, Democrats weren’t the only ones hitting Vitter for his salacious past. Members of his own party piled on during the jungle primary, with GOP Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne endorsing Democrat John Bel Edwards after being eliminated from the primary.
“Vitter had not faced a strong Republican since that came out,” GOP strategist Brad Todd said of Vitter’s past. DesJarlais’ voters, on the other hand, “had expressed their opinion it,” said Todd, who managed Tracy’s campaign.
Because of how conservative his district is, intra-party attacks are all DesJarlais has ever had to worry about. And yet, Republicans haven’t fully vetted DesJarlais’ past, Oppenheimer said.
Tracy made implicit references to DesJarlais’ integrity, but he didn’t go all-out attacking him for “hypocrisy” until the very end of the campaign. And there were other factors at play during that race, namely DesJarlais’ cancer diagnosis late in the campaign.
Of course, sex scandals don’t have to end political careers. Kissing a staffer may have killed former Louisiana GOP Rep. Vance McAllister’s 2014 re-election, but South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford returned to Congress after a very public extramarital affair rocked his gubernatorial tenure.
Capitalizing on any scandal first requires a credible political opponent. While DesJarlais has continued to struggle to raise money, his young primary challenger, Grant Starrett, impressed early with a hefty self-funded war chest.
Starrett’s fundraising has since slowed, but he ended the third quarter with $694,000 in the bank compared to DesJarlais’ $208,000.
But so far, Starrett has made no moves to take on the incumbent’s personal problems directly. Instead, he’s tried to carve out room on DesJarlais’ right, blasting him for his previous support for food stamps, and criticizing Planned Parenthood in a way DesJarlais cannot.
“I think they think that some of his bad votes are better politically,” one Tennessee Republican said of the Starrett campaign. “Everybody already knows about his other stuff.”
It’s still too early to know if Starrett will make the personal political.
“If you’re going to make a race, you have to,” Oppenheimer said. “Otherwise what’s he vulnerable on?”
Indeed, DesJarlais’ support among hardline conservatives and tea party sympathizers in the rural areas of his district runs deep, and especially in a low-turnout primary, having a loyal base counts for a lot, Tennessee Republicans said.
And even if Vitter’s fate should be worrisome for other scandal-plagued politicians, not all sex scandals are created equal. For starters, Vitter’s prostitution scandal occurred while he was in office; DesJarlais’ scandal did not.
A pro-life doctor encouraging his sexual partners to have abortions sets the hypocrisy bar high, but it may not have quite the same salacity as a prostitution scandal in which certain infantile fetishes came to light.
“Although both involve sex out of marriage, playing around with hookers has a lot more sensational grab to it, I think,” Oppenheimer said.