David Vitter, Suddenly Scrambling

>Louisiana Senator David Vitter, who for a while looked like he would escape the anti-incumbent pall leading up to November's midterms, is in for a tough reelection battle. Up until Friday, Vitter carried a solid 15-point lead over Democratic challenger Charlie Melancon and enjoyed a 62 percent favorability rating and 45 percent job approval (contrast that with 17.6 percent job approval for Congress as a whole). But with only a few minutes to spare before the filing deadline on Friday evening, a respected and well-connected former Louisiana Supreme Court Justice filed his candidacy for the Republican nomination. Vitter will now go up against Chet Traylor in the state's August 28 primary.  

Why the delay in Traylor's candidacy? Despite Vitter's prostitution scandal in 2007, the freshman senator has seemed set for reelection. As of March 31, he'd raised $9.4 million, much of it from the oil and health care industries. He'd built a strong campaign line denouncing Melancon's support for the Obama agenda. Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne had considering running against Vitter but ultimately passed.

In the past few weeks, however, Vitter has battled a media hailstorm about a staffer arrested two years ago for holding his girlfriend at knife point. Vitter had claimed that the staffer, Brent Furer, had been disciplined, but the issue resurfaced when rumors circulated that Furer has been assigned to women's issues within Vitter's office. Vitter fired Furer and denied that the aide had worked on women's issues, though he did admit that Furer's portfolio included abortion.

This most recent scandal has drawn significant local attention to Vitter's scandal-plagued history, and Traylor may have glimpsed an opportunity to pounce. The anti-incumbent sentiment surely encouraged Traylor as well, with a Washington Post/ABC poll today finding that 60 percent of Americans are looking for new leaders and only 25 percent are planning on re-electing their current representatives come November.

In some cases, this reactionary tide has not waited until November to upend Republican victims. The May GOP Senate primary in Utah delivered a crushing blow to three-term Senator Bob Bennett, who was ousted by Tea Party politics. South Carolina six-term Representative Bob Inglis suffered a similar fate in June.    

When Vitter's opponent was a Democrat, he seemed likely to escape this reckoning. But with another viable Republican on the table, Vitter too will be vulnerable to the anti-incumbent primary effect.

Aaron Blake at The Fix notes Traylor's accelerated campaign schedule:

He's just now getting the thing off the ground, and he has only six weeks to mount a successful primary against an incumbent senator ...

Traylor aims to raise $1 million in that abbreviated time period, and he's no fundraising neophyte. He raised more than half a million dollars for his state Supreme Court campaign in 1996, which is a substantial sum, especially for back then.

Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall agrees that fundraising will not be an issue for Traylor:

Traylor is extremely wired within business-backing Republican circles in the state, as evidenced in part by the business backing he got when he first ran for the Court seat. Both implicitly and sometimes explicitly, Traylor came into the race with a big chunk of the GOP and business establishment in the state saying he was their guy. Regardless of who's behind him, all signs point to having all the money he'll need to contest the race.

Traylor also has the social conservative laurels that are slipping from Vitter's shoulders with each passing scandal. He's known for writing the majority opinion in the 2000 Louisiana Supreme Court case upholding the state's sodomy ban.

In this respect, the Vitter-Traylor primary will be very different than the Bennett and Inglis contests, though it could result in a similar anti-incumbent outcome. The Louisiana GOP race will pit one establishment candidate against another, and the question here is not who is more right-wing -- Vitter and Traylor are equivalently conservative, and neither is a Tea Party favorite. Instead, the deciding factor could be who better exemplifies family values and ethical behavior, which would make this primary a blast from the pre-Tea Party past.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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