June 2, 2015 11:21 AM

He leads every statewide poll, has racked up more major endorsements and easily has raised more money than all his opponents combined. In the race to be Louisiana’s next governor, U.S. Sen. David Vitter looks like a juggernaut.

Which is precisely how he wants everyone to see him. That aura of invincibility — combined with Vitter’s no-holds-barred political style — represents quite a comeback for a guy who was mired in scandal eight years ago.

Vitter is nothing if not single-minded. Since the dark days of the D.C. Madam prostitution scandal in 2007, he has methodically rebuilt his image and his statewide network to the point that he is the undisputed kingpin of Louisiana’s GOP. Far more than Gov. Bobby Jindal, Vitter has helped elect Republicans to key offices. His hands-on management of Bill Cassidy’s defeat of Mary Landrieu in the U.S. Senate race last fall was his crowning achievement — and the unofficial kickoff of his gubernatorial campaign.

Although many voters have forgiven Vitter’s “serious sin,” he still has enemies galore — in and out of the GOP. He has both the highest “positive” and the highest “negative” voter ratings, and his reputation as an autocratic, vindictive, “my-way-or-the-highway” kind of guy gives many pols the willies at the mere thought of him in the governor’s office.

Combine that with his singular drive and masterful sense of political timing and strategy, and it’s easy to see why so many in the political arena are asking: Can anybody beat Vitter?

The answer, of course, is yes. But which of his announced opponents — Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle or state Rep. John Bel Edwards — is up to the task?

Dardenne and Angelle, like Vitter, are Republicans. Edwards is the lone Democrat (thus far), and recent surveys show him running a strong second — exactly the scenario that Vitter wants in a solidly “red” state.

But Louisiana politics remains full of surprises. For decades early gubernatorial front-runners faded in the stretch as voters opted for late closers — from Edwin Edwards to Buddy Roemer to Mike Foster, all of whom came from the back of the pack to win. Then again, our last two governors — Kathleen Blanco and Bobby Jindal — both started as favorites ... and finished that way.

As the late Louisiana political consultant Jim Carvin used to say, “Every election is a unique event.”

So, who can beat Vitter?

Anybody can — including Vitter himself — but it won’t be easy.

Vitter won’t run out of money, but he could wear out his welcome. One possibility has been rumored for months: another bombshell revelation about his past. If that were a real possibility, however, wouldn’t we have heard something by now?

A new Super PAC called GumboPAC recently launched an online attack campaign against Vitter. The initial installments focused on the sex scandal and, more recently, on Vitter missing the Senate’s historic budget vote last month. GumboPAC promises more, but if the outfit has a bombshell it should have lobbed it by now.

Then there’s Vitter’s likability, or lack thereof. A recent Politico.com story quoted several Republican U.S. Senators dissing him for being all about himself and thus unable to get things done. “Within the chummy confines of the U.S. Senate, Vitter has emerged as one of the most disliked members,” the story said. One GOP senator described Vitter’s tactics as “disingenuous.” A similar story on Salon.com said of Vitter’s campaign for governor, “[J]ust about everyone on Capitol Hill hopes that he wins because they hate him.”

Vitter ignores such talk. His campaign also declined to answer emailed questions for this story.

“The obvious obstacles confronting Vitter are his likability and his prior scandals,” says Kirby Goidel, former LSU pollster and political science professor. Goidel now teaches at Texas A&M but still follows Louisiana politics closely. “For someone not particularly well liked in Washington — or Baton Rouge before that — he has done a good job of managing his image during his campaigns.”

Goidel adds that Vitter’s past sins “loom,” but voters already know about them. “Someone would have to make it a part of a larger campaign narrative,” Goidel says. “Or there has to be new evidence — photos, videos, etc. I don’t think it will be enough just to bring it all up again, as that seems like old news.”

One other Vitter weakness is his temper. If someone catches him losing it and records the moment on a smartphone, the video would go viral. For that reason, look for Vitter to follow the campaign strategy he laid out for Cassidy in last year’s U.S. Senate race — he will run a virtual campaign, limiting his in-person appearances to friendly audiences and otherwise communicating solely via TV ads.

Bottom line: Anybody counting on Vitter to beat himself may as well buy a lottery ticket. The odds of winning are about the same.

Right now, the consensus view is that Vitter will face Edwards in the runoff — a scenario that has Vitter licking his chops because it would allow him to use his favorite bogeyman, President Barack Obama, as a straw man opponent once again.

“Louisiana is a tough place for Democrats to win statewide,” says LSU pollster and professor Michael Henderson, research director at LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab. “Mary Landrieu’s win in 2008 was the last time a Democrat won statewide. I can’t say that a Democrat has no chance, but a dispassionate look at recent elections and voting patterns will lead you to say that the odds are going to favor a Republican over a Democrat.”

Edwards feels he can break the Dems’ losing streak in part because of his own impressive resume (he’s a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and former officer in the 82nd Airborne — and the only candidate with a military service record) and in part because of Vitter’s penchant for alienating folks.

Edwards is highly regarded by his peers in the state House of Representatives — including many Republicans. He is seen as a reasonable, thoughtful legislator who is not bound by ideology. Though a Democrat, he is staunchly pro-gun and pro-life, and has led the fight against many of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s most controversial programs — programs he says Vitter will champion as governor, probably with greater (adverse) effect.

Goidel says that message could resonate against Vitter in a runoff. “It’s ironic that Vitter has this rivalry with Jindal because he’s the most Jindal-like candidate in terms of his approach to politics,” he says. Edwards is the most unlike Jindal, but he also has the hardest time in a runoff against Vitter.”

Some speculate that after a bruising primary campaign the losing Republicans may be so disaffected with Vitter that they’ll endorse Edwards in the runoff. That happened in 1979, when the losing Democrats endorsed Republican Dave Treen over Democrat Louis Lambert. Could history repeat itself? It’s possible, but hardly predictable.

There’s also speculation that another Democrat will jump into the race and carve up Edwards’ current lock on that voting bloc. If that happens, Henderson says, “all bets are off. At that point, it’s not hard to imagine a Vitter-Dardenne or Vitter-Angelle runoff.”

Who might that other Democrat be? Two weeks ago, Baton Rouge-area special prosecutor and Southern University Board of Supervisors member Tony Clayton told LaPolitics.com that he is considering a run for governor. Also considering the race is retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who has no party affiliation but leads the Green Army as an environmental advocate and who remains a hero to many in New Orleans for his calming — and commanding — presence in the days after Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood disaster.

Both Clayton and Honore are black, and both, coincidentally, hail from Pointe Coupee Parish. Either would pose a significant challenge to Edwards, as black voters now comprise a majority of registered Democrats in Louisiana.

Moreover, as left-leaning blogger and columnist Bob Mann recently wrote in The Times-Picayune, if Democrats really want to defeat Vitter, they should consider voting for a moderate Republican — a suggestion that drew the ire of Edwards and his followers.

Organizing a “strategic voting” campaign among rank-and-file Democrats won’t be easy, but if such a campaign gains traction — or if a black candidate enters the race — it could propel Dardenne or Angelle into the runoff.

Another wrinkle in Vitter’s cloak of invincibility is his gender gap. The latest survey by Southern Media and Opinion Research (SMOR) shows the senator with a huge 15-point gap between men and women, undoubtedly a lingering consequence of the prostitution scandal. The same poll gives Vitter 16 percent of the black vote, which history suggests won’t hold up on Election Day. Despite those wrinkles, Vitter remains the clear frontrunner, in part because he gets more than 46 percent of the vote among men statewide.

Add one more wild card to that mix: New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. When he announced he would not run for governor, Landrieu immediately upped his game as a power broker. It’s understood Landrieu won’t back Vitter, but would he consider endorsing a Republican in order to beat Vitter?

“I intend to play a role in this election, and I will do what I think is in the best interest of Louisiana,” Landrieu says, adding pointedly, “Party affiliation is not my top priority.”

“If either Angelle or Dardenne makes the runoff against Vitter, the race becomes far more interesting,” Goidel says. “At that point you begin to wonder if they can pick up enough Democratic votes — and maintain enough Repub-lican votes — to win the election. ... There’s no guarantee that Vitter loses in that scenario. He’s still the favorite.”

Both Dardenne and Angelle are seen as “moderate” Republicans who could attract Democratic votes against Vitter. Dardenne has won statewide races for secretary of state and lieutenant governor after being attacked each time for not being conservative enough. He also has a high-profile GOP backer in Vitter’s backyard — Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, who endorsed Dardenne a year ago.

Angelle’s potential base in Acadiana poses another threat to Vitter. Cajuns are conservative, but they historically support one of their own if given the chance. Angelle’s relatively late entry into the fray, however, has cost him valuable time and fundraising traction. In addition, critics portray him as the “Jindal candidate” because he worked in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration and has been helped in this race by several former Jindal aides, including former chief of staff Timmy Teepell.

All of which means Vitter will have ammunition of his own if he faces a fellow Republican in the runoff — assuming, of course, that Vitter makes the runoff himself.

Right now, that seems like a foregone conclusion, but Henderson notes that nearly three-fourths of Louisiana voters aren’t even paying attention to the governor’s race yet, according to LSU’s most recent survey.

“No one is connecting any dots yet, except for the most engaged political junkies,” Henderson says. “That means there’s going to be some fluidity in all the poll numbers as the campaign heats up.”

Put another way, this is Louisiana: Expect the unexpected.

— Jeremy Alford of LaPolitics contributed to the reporting of this story.


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