NEW ORLEANS -- With less than six weeks until Election Day, Louisiana's senatorial race has unfolded in surprisingly tepid fashion. This dearth of drama prevails because the popular Republican incumbent, David Vitter, is expected to handily defeat his Democratic challenger, Congressman Charlie Melancon. (An Aug. 30 Rasmussen poll puts the spread at 54 percent for Vitter to Melancon's 33 percent, while the average tally at RealClearPolitics.com
is 51.0 percent to 36.7 percent.)
A recent debate between the two, at Loyola University in New Orleans, was most noteworthy for staying completely civil and predictable. Even so, many pundits anticipate some controversy and fireworks if Melancon ramps up discussion of Vitter's scandals. These include the 2007 revelation of his confessed involvement with Deborah Jeane Palfrey, a.k.a. the "D.C. Madame,"
and this year's report of several violent acts toward women by Vitter's erstwhile staffer Brent Furer
Although the Furer incidents happened two years ago, Vitter kept him employed until the stories broke this spring, and even put Furer in charge of women's issues. The Melancon campaign has seized on this tone-deaf move by airing an ad
that slams Vitter for insensitivity and worse.
In asking the rhetorical question "It makes us wonder . . . what else does he have on you?" the ad also suggests that Furer kept his job by blackmailing his boss over more such problems that may exist. There has been frequent speculation, among political journalists and observers in Louisiana, about the possibility of additional indiscretions on Vitter's part -- in connection, for example, with the Canal Street brothel case in New Orleans
. Such interest is currently heightened by the thought that new charges, whether valid or not, might surface before the election.
While Melancon's well-produced attack on Vitter about Furer includes excerpts of graphic reportage on the case by ABC News, the ad and this argument in general do not appear to have gained traction with the public. Vitter's approval rating remains high and his past seems unlikely to haunt him. (Nor, in a revealing dichotomy, did the Republican Party shun Vitter as it did his former colleague Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho after he was arrested on charges of lewd conduct in an airport restroom.) Adroit and extremely pugnacious, Vitter has avoided all but minimal comments on the Furer affair, just as he limited discussion of his D.C. Madame connection to a sole public apology. Instead, Vitter is focused on aggressively linking Melancon with President Obama.
While this approach certainly includes references to the economy, it is also framed, to a great extent, in the context of the gulf oil spill. A June survey by Public Policy Polling
found that Louisiana voters feel that former President George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina was better than that of Obama to the spill. After the BP rig exploded, the president created considerable ill will in south Louisiana by imposing a moratorium
on deep-water drilling until the accident could be thoroughly investigated. Had Obama called for examining one rig at a time, with minimal disruption of the industry, the outcry would presumably have been minimal. But shutting down all 33 deep-water rigs at once created the specter of tens of thousands of lost jobs, from rig employees to workers in attendant service industries. Forced inactivity, it was and is feared, will prompt oil companies to move their rigs overseas before the moratorium is lifted, as expected, in November. For south Louisiana, where the other major employer -- the seafood industry -- has already suffered catastrophic losses
this year, Obama's blanket decision is perceived as an economic death blow. Already criticized for a slow response to the crisis, the president is now taking lumps for perceived insensitivity.
Debate continues as to whether his edict has actually triggered such dire consequences, and each side cites widely differing statistics to support its position. Whatever the facts may be, local Republicans have made the moratorium a senatorial campaign issue even as Melancon and his Democratic colleague, Sen. Mary Landrieu, are vocally opposing it. When Melancon sponsored an amendment to this effect, Vitter denounced it as "a sham . . . endorsed by Nancy Pelosi." But the Advocate, Baton Rouge's daily newspaper, opined that "While Republicans -- reliably in industry's corner, no matter what -- criticized it as inadequate in its wording, we disagree. That an amendment was even allowed by the House leadership is an accomplishment; the Melancon amendment is a helpful step in a process that will go on for a while."
Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is airing an equally well produced ad
that begins with the rhetorical question "Who is Charlie Melancon – a Louisiana Blue Dog, or Obama's lap dog?" Although Melancon voted against the health care overhaul, Vitter consistently equates him with Pelosi, and such attacks appear to be sticking, for the most part, while Melancon's simply are not. Even the current national antipathy toward entrenched incumbents does not seem to hold sway in this instance.
Affable, earnest and rather bland, Melancon could hardly be called a dynamic campaigner. He is trying to capitalize on this staid image with such statements as "Peachy [his wife] and I have been living the life of Ozzie and Harriet. I guess we have been dull by David Vitter's standards." But Vitter is similarly deficient in charisma, and there was a time when this shared trait would have hurt both candidates in a Louisiana election. Popular wisdom has it that dullness is the worst sin in Louisiana politics, which dovetails with the notion that politics is one of the state's prime spectator sports. The most recent prominent figure to get results with such swagger was the former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, a Democrat. Edwards served four terms between 1972 and 1996 and is now serving time on federal racketeering charges. When campaigning, Edwards made no attempt to homogenize his pronounced Cajun accent, and even gave some stump speeches in French. (Until the 1970s, when a Cajun cultural renaissance swept south Louisiana, such ethnic identification was considered quite passé. During the early 20th century, in fact, the speaking of Cajun French was forbidden in Louisiana's public schools on pain of corporal punishment.)
Besides such regional flair, Edwards' quick wit -- some have called him "the Cajun Henny Youngman" -- made his press conferences compare favorably with stand-up routines by national-level professional comedians. In addition, Edwards' successful gambling in Las Vegas and alleged prodigious womanizing only enhanced his roguish appeal in some circles. In marked contrast to Vitter's frequent and often prissy espousals of family values, Edwards shamelessly celebrated his earthy appetites.
But the flamboyant tradition of Edwin Edwards and the eccentric country-boy persona of Gov. Earl Long, decades before him, are hardly in evidence of late. Louisiana's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, exudes no such perceivable regional identity, and could just as well hail from the wheat fields of rural North Dakota. Vitter's slight suburban New Orleans accent is so mild as to be virtually unnoticeable outside of the state. And, absent Edwin Edwards' powerful persona, Charlie Melancon's Cajun/Catholic roots could actually hurt his chances in Anglo/Protestant north Louisiana, a region more culturally connected with neighboring Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas than to his own state's French-infused southern reaches.
When the flamboyant and outspoken James Carville moved back to New Orleans several years ago, there was considerable speculation -- never confirmed by Carville -- that he would challenge Vitter. That race would certainly have enthralled the spectator-sport contingent, far more so than the current pairing. And even though he was never on board as the Democratic candidate, Carville's absence leaves a deafening silence of sorts, because only a man with his verve, acumen and vast connections could likely beat a candidate as tough and energetic as Vitter.
Vitter's campaign war chest is twice as big as Melancon's. So, apparently, is his fire in the belly to win, unless the challenging congressman taps into reserves of passion and strategy thus far unseen. This imbalance and Vitter's commanding lead are all the more striking in that he is personally disliked by many of his Republican colleagues
. Jindal has yet to endorse Vitter, although he has publicly supported other candidates. It seems likely that the governor -- whose national aspirations depend on his squeaky-clean image and support from the religious right -- wants no association with Vitter's admitted ethical lapses. The mainstream Republican establishment appears to have no such qualms, however.
Meanwhile the ever-canny Vitter, the ultimate GOP insider, is astutely embracing GOP insiders' harshest critics. As Vitter's website proudly states: "The Tea Party is no 'fringe' group. They are our friends, neighbors and members of many Louisiana families."