If Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) wins today’s runoff election for governor of Louisiana, it will be the second time in a month that a Republican defied public polls to walk into a state house. But it would be the first time an election clearly turned on the issue of Syrian refugees being allowed into the United States — and it would overcome the almost unheard-of factor of an incumbent governor apparently trying to sink his own party’s nominee.
In Louisiana, it’s an open secret that Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) concluded a years-long blood feud with Vitter by ending his presidential campaign on Tuesday.
“You can’t get anyone to admit it, but it’s what everyone thinks,” said Julia O’Donoghue, the state politics reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “We spent two days talking about refugees and then two days talking about Jindal. Those first two days were the only ones in the runoff when John Bel [Edwards, the Democratic nominee] was on defense.”
The timeline is simple. On Sunday, news broke that a Syrian refugee’s passport was found with one of the suspects in the Paris terrorist attacks. Within a day, Vitter was up with a TV ad accusing Edwards of wanting to work with President Obama — whose toxicity Vitter had previously tried and failed to pour on the Democrat — and let in refugees. At the final gubernatorial debate on Monday, Vitter pressed the issue. He intended to drive it home all week.
Then, on Tuesday, Jindal used a mid-day Fox News interview to end his presidential campaign. That had a direct effect on what Louisiana’s press corps could cover. “There really aren’t that many of us,” noted O’Donoghue. Instead of spending Wednesday covering the gubernatorial race, the media covered Jindal and his failed presidential bid, and it kept covering him as he suddenly proposed a fix to the $500 million budget gap that had helped drive down his popularity in the state. The news of Vitter heading back to his day job and introducing a bill to staunch the refugee flow was buried.
Vitter’s campaign, which did not respond to a question from The Post, had to scramble. Instead of following its plan for Thursday — four press events, all on refugees — he had to downsize. As Buzzfeed’s John Stanton reported, one of the events was moved from outside of the Catholic Charities’ refugee assistance office to the steps of the capitol in Baton Rouge. Most of the questions were about the budget hole, a more immediate issue for the next governor than the settlement of refugees.
Asked if Vitter’s campaign had been considered in the decision to quit the White House bid, Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin responded with a flat “no.” But Jindal had refused to endorse Vitter, and even while he spoke about barring refugees from the state, he gave no cover whatsoever to Vitter’s message — which included a factually dodgy story of a refugee going “missing,” even though he was quickly located and committed no crimes. “Republicans could lose the governor’s office because of Senator David Vitter’s badly damaged brand,” Jindal strategist Curt Anderson told NBC News reporter Kasie Hunt.
There have been no public polls of the Louisiana race since the Paris attacks, but as election day began, Democrats were only cautiously optimistic. Early voting, which ended before the Paris attacks, produced an electorate that was slightly more black and more Democratic than the election’s first round. But the polls that had Edwards clobbering Vitter by up to 22 points assumed that the Democrat would win twice as many white voters as former senator Mary Landrieu did in her losing reelection bid one year earlier. Democrats are waiting to see if Republicans come home to Vitter, and if the refugee story helped him. And just in case, the closing commercial of the pro-Edwards Gumbo PAC assured voters that the Democrat would not allow refugees in the state.