For months, the governor’s race dynamics have presented a challenge to him. Sen. David Vitter’s strong conservative credentials plus ability to meld populist preferences into him make his a formidable Republican challenger. Meanwhile, Democrats wishing to have an affair with Dardenne on their endorsed standard-bearer state Rep. John Bel Edwards, given the former’s good government record while in the state Senate but willingness to raise taxes to fund it, have another suitor from the right-of-center in Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle. With the vote closer to the center split by Dardenne and Angelle, Vitter and Edwards have clear sailing to dominate among voters at the ends of the ideological spectrum, leaving Angelle and Dardenne dragging the rear and considerably behind the others.
Now with fewer than eight weeks remaining until the Oct. 24 election, the stability of these dynamics suggest nothing will change as long as the candidates continue to stress the same themes and issues. So, perhaps shaken by a recent report, Dardenne decided to do just that.
Prior to a candidate forum sponsored by a Baton Rouge radio station, Dardenne suffered a public relations setback when information backed by photographic evidence emerged suggesting coordination between his political action committee and his campaign, which is forbidden by law. Of course, the fact that leaders from both organizations were seen yukking it up over dinner and drinks does not mean they were plotting strategy together in violation of the law, but when the Vitter camp publicized the information and implied this motivation, at the very least it did not look so good for Dardenne, who has emphasized ethics issues as part of his platform.
Vitter’s fundraising prowess likely has contributed to Dardenne’s polling woes, and all the other candidates have decried Vitter’s ability to have raised on his behalf, by campaign or by PAC, more money than all of their resources combined as something, if not illegal, at least somehow unseemly. Dardenne ratcheted up this theme when in response to the Vitter-revealed photograph and comments by having his campaign question the separateness of the Vitter campaign and PAC as a principal of each are married to each other.
But then, at this forum, Dardenne took the opportunity to go nuclear, perhaps with this recent exchange in mind and his lack of support indicated in polls. It turns out that no other candidates graced the event so he turned it into questioning and answering, and someone asked him how he differed from Vitter. His answer: “I have not frequented prostitution, especially not while on the floor of the U.S. Congress.”
What Dardenne made allusion to was Vitter’s 2007 statement, as it appeared that information would be leaked to the public about an investigation into a prostitution ring and that a phone number connected to the freshman senator could be part of it, that he had committed a “serious sin,” and then never addressed the matter again. Note that Vitter never admitted that he had engaged in such behavior, nor was he charged ever criminally for doing so.
Nevertheless, from his statement and lack of protestation at the suggestion when made repeatedly subsequently, we can infer that Vitter did seek out such illegal services (and some investigative reporting corroborates this). However, Dardenne cannot claim that he knows Vitter “frequented” these on the floor of the House or Senate; there is no evidence to back that up. Yet by saying this, perhaps he hopes he can create the impression that this was the case.
Except that he’s five years too late. The issue acted as a central theme to former Rep. Charlie Melancon’s attempt to unseat Vitter in 2010. Much as Dardenne is trying to do now, Melancon tried to raise questions about Vitter’s ethics and character early and often in that campaign. That approach awarded him a blowout defeat by more than 20 points.
Vitter annihilated his challenger because his campaign stuck to the incumbent’s strength, the issues. Simply, Vitter has found himself very often on the right side of the state’s majority when it comes to these preferences, and his outsider, maverick personage as a legislator appeals to the escalating disenchantment the public has with politicians seen as too comfortable with keeping government size and power as is, currently reflected in that three leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination haven’t spent a day in government, while another is seen as a slightly-westerly, Hispanic version of Vitter ideologically and as far as his relationship to the Senate leadership.
His last Senate election, in effect, inoculated him from the impact of his revelation, precisely because the majority of the electorate understood that whatever battle he raged within himself to overcome his personal weaknesses – and there’s zero evidence that Vitter has backslide on this – it did not interfere with his performance in office, a performance in terms of issues it applauded. Almost all who have indicated to date they would vote for him likely know about the incident, so Dardenne’s reminder won’t shake them. The only voters who see this of such overwhelming importance is the Angry Left, and they already have their candidate in the suit-wearing demagogue Edwards. This tactic wins Dardenne or anybody else few votes.
So it becomes a sign of Dardenne’s desperation that he would throw it out there. It won’t be the last time, and he won’t be the only one to do so, but the people have shown it won’t work. Therefore, that he did shows his situation is so precarious that he realizes he must try anything, no matter how farfetched its chances of success, to turn around his struggling campaign.