David Vitter: The Teflon John

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>It takes more than a little hubris for Sen. David Vitter to play the moral superiority card, but that's exactly what he's doing in the Louisiana Republican primary race against retired state Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor. Vitter, better known nationally as "that senator who slept with all those prostitutes," is beneficiary to revelations that Traylor is a homewrecker who stole a state representative's wife, and, later, the same representative's daughter-in-law.

The political rise of David Vitter is one of personal setbacks and historical ironies. He first entered the House of Representatives following Bob Livingston's dramatic resignation over an extramarital affair the day President Bill Clinton was impeached. (Livingston, then the Speaker-elect, challenged President Clinton to do the same. Clinton declined.) Three years later, Vitter set his eyes on the governor's mansion, only to withdraw following revelations that he was a patron of prostitutes and that his marriage was on the rocks.

In 2004, brandishing a solid conservative record and riding the coattails of President Bush's landslide win in the state, Vitter became the first Republican elected to the Senate in Louisiana's history. Again, he faced accusations of cavorting with ladies of ill repute, but dismissed the charges outright. It helped that he ran a positive campaign, making the charges -- an open secret in political circles -- appear somehow desperate or unseemly (or, at least, old news). His campaign commercials focused on helping Louisiana families get affordable health care and prescription medicine, and spotlighted Vitter's folksy charm.

His 2007 appearance in a D.C. Madam's phonebook made waves nationally and didn't help credibility for other Republicans in the coming elections. Statewide, his apology -- "I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife" -- was the subject of much ridicule, and God has yet to make a formal statement confirming said forgiveness. But with Katrina recovery efforts underway in Louisiana and then-Sen. Barack Obama capturing the nation's imagination, Vitter shrewdly gambled that he could ride the two years to his next election, just as he had done in 2002.

Opinion polls appear to validate his strategy. Chet Traylor was a long-shot candidate even before he began swinging from the branches of someone else's family tree. With his challenger from the right dispatched, Vitter can set his sights on Democratic Congressman Charlie Melancon.

Melancon is the ideal blue candidate in a state painted solidly red in the post-Katrina diaspora. A Republican in all but registration, Melancon voted for many of President Bush's tax cuts, voted against cap-and-trade, against health care reform, for the Bush and Obama stimulus packages, for the Federal Marriage Amendment, and against expanding hate crimes legislation. He recently made headlines for his emotional breakdown during a hearing on the oil spill.

Unfortunately for Melancon, who is by all accounts a good man with none of the personal baggage carried by his Republican opponents, this is not the year to be a Democrat on the ballot. Especially in Louisiana. State polls show President Obama earning worse marks for his handling of the BP oil disaster than did President Bush for the Katrina aftermath. Polls also suggest Vitter's lead to be as high as 16 points, no small obstacle to overcome. Though the race will surely tighten as November approaches, Vitter has already survived the worst possible scandals. He may in fact be the unlikely heir to jailed Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, who once famously boasted that the only way he'd lose an election is if he were found in bed "with a dead girl or a live boy."

Of course, in light of Vitter's past, anything is possible.

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David W. Brown is the coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Generally published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, Brown is a graduate of Louisiana State University, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, and a veteran of Afghanistan. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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