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Vitter regaining strength, but questions remain

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

March 2, 2009 US Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) has made a substantial comeback from the days of scandal that rocked his career in 2007, when his phone number was found on a list belonging to the infamous “DC Madam.” Many Pelican State voters, perhaps due to their French heritage, are more likely to shrug off the personal foibles of their politicians. So Vitter, by keeping to a low profile and sticking to his knitting, has managed to rebuild his strength among many of the conservatives who dominate the GOP and arguably the political scene in Louisiana.

Recently, he made headlines here for opposing the nomination of Hillary Clinton for secretary of state, for his staunch opposition to President Obama’s stimulus package and for calling for the resignation of US Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL).

“Obama and all this spending is not that popular in Louisiana, especially all the spending and taxes,” says Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat. “The stimulus package was heaven-sent for Vitter, who’s at his best on the attack.”

His first 34 pieces of legislation in this Congress, according to The Hill newspaper, were focused mainly on social issues, including abortion, stem cell research, praying in public, illegal immigration and flag-burning. Moreover, Vitter has been traveling the state, rekindling old alliances.

His past, however, has not disappeared completely. Whether as a prank or political theater, Stormy Daniels, a porn star, has announced that she will run against Vitter. The effect of her candidacy, given a boost by active on-line support from a group of college students, is the embarrassment of Vitter.

More importantly, more than one Republican is being mentioned to challenge Vitter in the primary, including Family Research Council head Tony Perkins; Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, freshman US Rep. Joseph Cao and former US Reo. John Cooksey. Perkins, an eight-year veteran of the Louisiana legislature, might cut away at Vitter’s support among the state’s near-dominant social conservatives; he has publicly expressed his potential interest in the race. In 2002, Perkins lost a US Senate bid to Mary Landrieu, garnering 10% in an open primary with four Republican contenders.

Dardenne, whose strength would lie more in the party’s traditional wing and in the business community, will first have to see if there’s money there for a primary challenge. Cao is a possibility mainly because of the publicity and good will he engendered among GOPers for defeating scandal-plagued US Rep. William Jefferson in December 2008.

Cooksey received 14% in a 2002 non-partisan, multi-candidate primary against Landrieu. He has recently been approached by some Republicans who would like to see him run and are forming a “Draft Cooksey” movement.

Vitter has amassed a war chest of more than $2 million, a significant sum, though not enough to scare off potential rivals. Says Pinsonat, “I’m sure the Republicans will try to avoid a primary challenge [to Vitter], which would allow the media and his critics to attack him on that personal stuff.”

If Vitter survives the primary -- which at this point seems likely, perhaps even without opposition as no other GOPer has decided to run -- he will face Democratic opposition, although how strong remains to be seen. Among those whose names are being mentioned for the Democratic nomination are Shaw Group CEO and former state Democratic chairman Jim Bernhard; Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick (cousin of singer Harry); former US Rep. Chris John, who garnered 29% to Vitter’s 51% in a 2004 multi-candidate, non-partisan primary; US Rep. Charlie Melancon; and Alexandria’s young, first-term Mayor Jacques Ray. None look like certain contenders and any of them would be an underdog against Vitter.

While Vitter is likely to be the favorite in the General Election, “It has a lot to do with what happens to the economy by next spring,” says political consultant Trey Ourso (D); “[Vitter] has been a vocal opponent of Obama and what he’s trying to do. If the economy comes back, it will hurt him.”  If the economy is still in severe recession, the GOP’s opposition to Obama’s various stimulus policies will play in Vitter’s favor. On the other hand, if the economy has begun to rebound significantly by the fall of next year, the GOP’s “just say no” approach to Obama’s spending may fall flat.



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