The debate’s heated conclusion was emblematic of one of the nastiest and most personal gubernatorial campaigns in recent years. Edwards launched a controversial TV ad last week that took direct aim at Vitter over his prostitution scandal. The ad accuses Vitter of choosing “prostitutes over patriots” by skipping a 2001 Senate floor vote to honor fallen soldiers to take a call from a D.C. prostitution ring. The ad prompted a mea-culpa ad this week from Vitter, in which he obliquely admits, “15 years ago I failed my family.” Vitter didn’t contest the content of the Edwards ad, except to express disappointment that some veterans were offended by the ad’s use of images of Arlington National Cemetery.
Edwards, a West Point grad and former Army Ranger, regularly uses his military background as the framework through which he draws a contrast with Vitter and the prostitution scandal, citing the West Point honor code, which reads: "A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do."
In Tuesday’s debate, Vitter and Edwards also had a heated back and forth over the use of trackers and private investigators in the race. A private investigator hired by the Vitter campaign was caught recording a local sheriff, an Edwards donor, a Republican state senator, and a separate P.I. just before the October primary, prompting Edwards to describe Vitter’s tactics as “Nixonian.” Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, the sheriff in question in the October incident, held a press conference Tuesday claiming video footage on the phone of the Vitter investigator showed Vitter’s campaign was worried about suppressing renewed news coverage of Wendy Ellis, the woman who came forward in 2007 claiming Vitter as a former client at a New Orleans brothel.
Vitter repeatedly accused Edwards in Tuesday night’s debate of acting “holier than thou” because Edwards claimed his campaign hasn’t employed trackers, though outside entities supporting Edwards’s campaign do. Vitter partially brought the discussion of his scandal on himself Tuesday night. In the final segment, Vitter complained, “In terms of negative campaigns, there’s nobody who’s been the target of more negative campaigning than me,” and singled out one PAC—the Louisiana Water Coalition—which ran TV ads questioning Vitter’s ethics in relation to his prostitution scandal. Vitter’s claim led to the heated exchange over Edwards’s latest ad.
During the early stages of the debate, tension over Vitter’s past stayed at a low simmer. Edwards at one point accused Vitter of being “unfaithful” to Louisiana taxpayers and later claimed in response to a Vitter jab over Edwards’s low voting score from a statewide business association, “When it comes to voting records, I don’t intend to give anybody 100 percent, except for my wife.”
The first 50 minutes of the hour-long debate were dominated by a much more civil discussion over the two candidates’ governing styles, education (particularly Common Core), the state budget, taxes, workforce development, health care (including Medicaid expansion), and infrastructure. But it was the final line of questioning under the category of “issues related to each candidate’s campaign” that turned up the heat.