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Doing a 'Vitter' makes senator a survivorman

Senator David Vitter
Sen. David Vitter maintained political success in the aftermath of his involvement with the "D.C. Madam" scandal by taking full responsibility, apologizing and refusing to answer further questions on the matter.AP
/ Source: CQ Politics

Some years ago, a lawyer whose client's story was so explosive that everybody in the media wanted to get a piece of him decided to do five Sunday morning talk shows, all on the same day.

Thus was born Doing a "Full Ginsburg."

A few years later, in a Senate race in New Jersey, a candidate quit the race just 35 days before the election — long after the statutory deadline — and got the state's Supreme Court to let him get away with it.

Thus was born Pulling a "Torricelli."

And now, in the wake of revelations by Sen. John Ensign and Gov. Mark Sanford that each had engaged in extramarital affairs, they are being advised to Do a "Vitter."

Two summers ago, first-term Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was a third of the way into his first term, and doing well by all accounts.

But then, facing exposure, he hastily arranged a press conference and revealed that his name and phone number were in the address book of "D.C. Madam" Debra Jean Palfrey.

Vitter took full responsibility and apologized for what he called "serious sin." There were no weasel words used, and he spoke in the active voice.

And then he refused to answer questions on the matter.

That press conference, it is clear in hindsight, was not the end of his game plan. It was just the beginning.

Like most of what Vitter has done in his public life, that plan and its execution have been methodical and logical and comprehensive.

The four elements
The plan consists of four main elements: First, having addressed the media on the subject of the D.C. Madam to Vitter's own satisfaction, he shut up about it; second, he redoubled his efforts to deliver tangible results for his base voters, to remind them of why they sent him to Washington in the first place; third, he used his intra-party muscle to head off a debilitating primary challenge; and fourth, he determined to raise so much money so early that it would act as a major deterrent to a serious general election threat.

And it has worked.

It has worked so well that in CQ Politics' recent Senate Race Ratings for 2010, Vitter's race is rated as "Leans Republican" — the same rating given to South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's race, and to the open seat race in Florida, where the National Republican Senatorial Committee is high on popular incumbent Gov. Charlie Crist as its likely nominee.

That Vitter should be rated just as likely to win as DeMint and Florida Republicans, despite having to confess "serious sin" publicly in a state where 58 percent of the population reports weekly church attendance — the highest rate of church attendance in the nation — is a testament to Vitter's strategy and execution.

Vitter's game plan began with a realistic assessment of what the political environment would look like in 2010.

By the summer of 2007, it was clear that population loss after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina had dramatically changed the partisan dynamics of the statewide playing field. In short, an awful lot of people had left the state, and hadn't come back. And the overwhelming majority of those who hadn't come back, it turns out, tended to pull the Democratic lever on Election Day.

For instance, Orleans Parish — whose boundaries are coterminous with the boundaries of the City of New Orleans — is the largest parish in the state, in terms of registered voters. It is also, by far, the most Democratic-voting parish in the state. It regularly returns 75-25 percent Democrat pluralities.

In his 2004 campaign for the Senate, for instance, Vitter lost Orleans Parish by roughly 144,500 votes, getting just 22 percent of the vote there.

In order to win statewide in Louisiana, Democrats simply must roll up huge margins there, to offset Republican pluralities in other parishes. In this sense, Orleans Parish is to Louisiana as Cook County is to Illinois, or as Hudson County is to New Jersey.

But after Katrina, Orleans Parish is but a shell of its former self, politically speaking.

In 2004, before Katrina, turnout in Orleans Parish was 196,086 votes; in 2008 — a year in which, given Barack Obama's spot on the top of the Democrat ticket, turnout reasonably could be expected to be higher than normal — turnout in Orleans Parish was just 149,448 votes.

In other words, despite the turnout-maximizing presence of Obama at the top of the ticket, Orleans Parish lost 46,638 votes — almost one in four — between 2004 and 2008.

Losing 47,000 votes out of Orleans Parish makes life easier for a Republican running statewide in Louisiana.

For example, if you take the Vitter 2004 Orleans Parish vote percentage, and apply it to the 2008 Orleans Parish number, the calculation yields a stunning number: Vitter's loss in Orleans Parish would have been cut from roughly 144,500 votes to just 117,000 votes.

That's 27,500 fewer votes that have to be made up elsewhere.

And that was in a presidential election year, where, for the first time ever, Democrats nominated a black candidate for President.

In 2010, the turnout in Orleans Parish is going to be much, much lower than it was in 2008, which means Vitter's margin of defeat in this one ultra-Democratic parish is likely going to be even smaller than 27,500 votes.

Big pluralities in context
To give you an idea of just how important big pluralities coming out of Orleans Parish are to Democrats running statewide in Louisiana, let me put that in context:

Mary Landrieu beat Suzie Haik Terrell in their 2002 runoff by roughly 42,000 votes statewide — fueled by a 78,900-vote margin in Orleans Parish.

Kathleen Blanco defeated Bobby Jindal in their 2003 runoff by roughly 55,000 votes statewide — fueled by a 49,741-vote margin in Orleans Parish.

Do the math. Without their massive Democratic victory margins in Orleans Parish, Landrieu would have lost by almost 40,000 votes, and Blanco would have barely squeaked in.

Then, too, there's this: Louisiana is, operationally speaking, one of the most conservative Republican states in the nation.

In 2008, its voters gave the state to John McCain over Barack Obama by a 365,000-vote, 59-40 percent drubbing. Six of its seven congressional districts are currently represented by a Republican, and the one Democrat who holds a seat — Rep. Charlie Melancon — was unopposed for reelection in 2008. In 2010, the red wave in Louisiana is going to be even stronger.

After determining the likely 2010 political environment, Vitter set about ensuring his conservative Republican base would have no reason to look elsewhere.

It worked.

In this March 2009 DailyKos/Research 2000 poll, for example, Vitter showed a strong 69 percent favorable rating among Louisiana Republicans.

Why is that important? Because January through June of the off year is the heavy recruiting season for the national party committees. By showing base strength at that time, Vitter was effectively sending a message to any Louisiana Republicans with thoughts in their head: Don't bother.

Former Congressman John Cooksey, 2002 Louisiana GOP Senate nominee Terrell, and former state Rep. Tony Perkins each saw their names thrown into the public mix and each responded within 48 hours with a nicely worded, "Me? But of course not! I think David Vitter is the neatest thing since sliced bread! Geaux Vitter!" sort of statement.

In each case, it happened so easily, and so quickly, that one could be forgiven for wondering if Vitter was channeling Don Vito Corleone. Or maybe Sonny.

Before we go any further, it's time for an important disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER: When I write about the politicians in my past, CQ Politics says I have to turn the cards face up. I worked for Vitter in his 2004 run for the U.S. Senate, and that's what allows me to make this next set of personal comments, because, let's face it, any good analyst could have put together the data points above.

Now, about the Vitter work ethic.

Vitter's approach to politics is the same as Gary Player's approach to golf: "Golf is a game of luck," Player once said. "And the harder I work, the luckier I get."

The only guy I've ever known who worked harder than David Vitter is this guy, and he made an entire career out of being billed as "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business."

Methodical with time, money
Vitter is the kind of candidate finance directors dream of when they take their required two-hour daily sleep — he measures his manhood by the size of his campaign war chest. He's the kind of guy who takes pages and pages of call sheets with him when he schedules time to make fundraising calls, and if finishes those sheets with 20 minutes to spare in his allotted call time, he doesn't take off for an early reward at Starbucks, he calls back to the office and asks for another couple of call sheets.

Not surprisingly, he raised $1.2 million in the second quarter of 2009, and is now sitting on $3.2 million cash on hand — an imposing figure for Louisiana 16 months before the election. To put that in context, at this point in the cycle of his 2004 run for the Senate, Vitter was only showing $1.2 million cash on hand.

Democrats had been hoping to convince Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard to challenge Vitter.

But Bernhard's 284,754 shares (for those of you scoring at home) of Shaw Group stock aren't worth what they were a year ago — at $29.45/share, they're worth a little more than $8 million, about half what they were last July — and Bernhard shouldn't be expected to make the race. If that's the case, Democrats would be left with a second-tier challenger, 3rd District Rep. Charlie Melancon.

Melancon's motive to run would be simple: Fear that his seat may evaporate underneath him.

Louisiana insiders are already talking about the 2011 redistricting map, and what will happen to Melancon's 3rd District. The likelihood is great that, because Louisiana will most likely lose a seat (due to the post-Katrina population loss discussed above), GOP map-drawers in Baton Rouge will push hard to slice and dice Melancon's district, and leave whomever holds it after the 2010 election without a chair when the music stops.

For Melancon, the 2010 election is a case of "move up, or move out."

Melancon raised almost $400,000 in the second quarter of 2009, roughly a third of what Vitter did in the same quarter, leaving him roughly $2 million behind Vitter.

That gap is larger than it sounds.

Vitter is already a known quantity statewide, while Melancon is not yet known by almost half the state's voters. Melancon's position in the 3rd District means that viewers in the New Orleans market have seen him on TV and in their newspapers, but most of the rest of the state hasn't. He'll have to spend millions of dollars just to get his statewide name identification numbers to Vitter's level — millions of dollars Vitter doesn't have to spend.

Plus, a sitting senator with a good shot at reelection generally can outraise a sitting congressman with an uphill climb ahead of him. So the $2 million gap Melancon now faces would only grow.

Put that all together, and it may not matter that Vitter sinned in a state that's right smack dab in the middle of the Rosary Belt.

Sixteen months from now, "Doing a Vitter" may be the model for political leaders who want to earn a new term in office after a self-inflicted wound.