Sabatos Crystal Ball

Louisiana Governor: Ganging Up on Vitter

Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 1st, 2015


In his classic biography of Earl Long, who was Huey’s brother and a three-time governor of Louisiana, A.J. Liebling described the state’s primary for gubernatorial nominations as “the grand gimmick of Louisiana politics.” Back then, when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election, all Democratic candidates would run together in the same primary. If someone got over 50%, that person would be the Democratic nominee, and, thus, the governor. If not, the top-two vote getters advanced to a runoff. Since 1975, Louisiana has used a more exotic system in which all candidates, regardless of party, run together in the same wild “jungle primary.” If no one wins a majority, there is a “general election” encounter between the top-two vote getters (who could be from the same party), i.e. a runoff election, about a month later.

The particulars of the primary may have changed, but Liebling’s observation that this primary system provides state politics “with a central mechanism as fascinating as a roulette wheel” remains operative.

With the Oct. 24 all-party primary fast approaching, four major candidates are fighting for two spots in what is an almost-assured runoff on Nov. 21. There are three Republicans — Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, and U.S. Sen. David Vitter — and one Democrat of note, state Rep. John Bel Edwards. Most polling has suggested that Vitter and Edwards will be the pair to advance to the runoff, with the other Republicans splitting up the GOP’s anti-Vitter vote. However, it’s possible that another Republican might advance instead of Vitter or that two Republicans (Vitter and either Dardenne or Angelle) could finish ahead of Edwards, resulting in an all-Republican playoff.

Recent surveys have also examined the possible runoff matchups, and some of these results have raised eyebrows. Democratic firm Public Policy Polling stirred the pot this past Thursday, finding Edwards ahead of Vitter 50%-38% while the other two Republicans are essentially tied with Edwards in a one-on-one contest. Of course, the poll was sponsored by Gumbo PAC, which is an anti-Vitter group, so you should take the numbers with many grains of salt. But another survey, from Baton Rouge’s Advocate, also found Vitter behind Edwards head-to-head, albeit by just four points. So perhaps there’s something to Vitter’s weaker numbers, with his past — particularly his previous dalliances with prostitutes — having returned to the fore during the campaign, dividing conservative voters in Louisiana.

Vitter’s resource advantage still far outweighs that of his opposition, Democrat or Republican. The latest campaign finance reports showed that Vitter has over twice as much cash ($4 million) as any other candidate, and his Super PAC has oodles more ($3.1 million) than other notable outside groups involved in the contest. If Vitter makes the runoff and faces Edwards, that money will be turned on the Democrat, who thus far has seen almost no negative attacks while the GOP candidates fight among themselves. Edwards will then become joined at the hip with President Obama, normally the most effective campaign strategy in conservative Southern states these days. And significant outside help for Edwards may or may not come: the Democratic Governors Association has yet to commit anything to the Louisiana race.

Remember that even former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who was effectively abandoned by national Democrats after the November election, won 44% in a December 2014 runoff. In the Advocate poll, Edwards was at 45% in the runoff while Vitter was at 41%. Edwards might be around the Landrieu 2014 floor/ceiling, while Vitter might have room to grow.

If the runoff is an all-GOP affair, Vitter’s money should boost him, but it’s hard to say how such a race would develop. Ultimately, Vitter’s best chance at victory is probably running against Edwards.

Overall, there does seem to be at least a small twinkling of daylight for Democrats in the Pelican State, which leads us to shift this race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican. At the end of the day, though, a Republican hold on Baton Rouge remains the most likely outcome in late November.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change