The last gubernatorial debate at Dunham School in Baton Rouge two Mondays ago was about as entertaining and informative as watching paint dry. Chances are, though, few Louisiana voters bothered to tune in for the last televised debate between the two candidates for governor, Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat of Amite, and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Metairie. That’s probably a good thing, for Edwards and Vitter, because neither candidate made a good case for why either one of them should be elected in the general election. That’s what happens when a debate devolves into a shouting match between two candidates who obviously can’t stand one another. It certainly didn’t help matters that the moderators didn’t have control of the debate from the get-go.
Count me as one observer who, some nine months ago, didn’t believe Edwards stood a snowball’s chance in hell of being elected governor. After all, Louisiana had just elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in a campaign in which an entrenched Democrat with a whole lot of seniority was seeking a fourth, six-year term in the most powerful legislative body in the world. If anything, Bill Cassidy’s election over Mary Landrieu told us Democrats had fallen almost completely out of favor with the Louisiana electorate and had a ton of work to do to regain the trust of an electorate that’s been trending Republican for 20 years.
Obviously I didn’t take two things into account. One was Edwards’ ability to connect with voters of all stripes and colors. Two was the level of distrust voters had in Vitter. Outright hatred in some corners. Fear in others. Vitter, in so many ways, has dominated Louisiana politics for more than two decades. He burst onto the scene in the early 1990s as an outspoken state representative from the same legislative district that elected David Duke. Anyone who observed him objectively at the time recognized he was destined for bigger things in life than the Louisiana House where he made few friends and a bunch of enemies. His election to the U.S. House to succeed Bob Livingston was marred by the tactics he employed to impugn Dave Treen’s character. His election to the U.S. Senate in 2004 was a snoozer. Not because Vitter stood head and shoulders above the field of candidates but because his primary opponent in the race, then-Congressman Chris John, ran such a poor campaign that he deserved to get beat.
Then came the prostitution story in 2007. Though the alleged relations with a woman who wasn’t his wife had occurred a number of years prior to its revelation, the scandal — if you want to call it that — gave Vitter’s detractors an opportunity to take him down a peg. It wasn’t enough to derail Vitter’s re-election in 2010, but it lingered long enough to play a role in a governor’s race some 15 years after the fact. It wasn’t the scandal itself that did Vitter in. Instead, it was the impression Vitter couldn’t be trusted — that he lacked the moral fortitude — to serve as governor that served as the backdrop for millions of dollars in TV advertising reminding us of all of this mess that cut Vitter down to size. It created the vulnerability.
But before you Democrats and disenfranchised Independents and Republicans start patting each other on the back over what a good job all of you did in thwarting Vitter, think twice. Better yet, you can thank a couple of environmental attorneys from Baton Rouge who spent more than $2 million of their own money to make it all happen while the rest of the trial lawyers in Louisiana lost contact with their manhood. So be it.
And so it will be an Edwards administration and a Republican-controlled Legislature. Liberals are giddy over the prospect of a Democrat running the state. The business community naively believes Republican lawmakers will stymie Edwards at every turn. Reality will set in soon, and the reality is Louisiana faces some monumental problems, including budget shortfalls of more than $1 billion. Sooner or later, some parental supervision will be needed. And guess who will provide it? John Alario, president of the state Senate.
Sam Hanna is a state political writer.