Anyone who has served as governor will tell you it’s not enough to simply be elected. To truly run a state like Louisiana, a governor needs a strong political infrastructure and a party that’s willing to die on the sword. Some governors lay their foundation as their campaign heats up, or even after voters give them the keys to the mansion in Baton Rouge. Others start much earlier.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter is in the latter category. He’s a man on a mission, and has been for a few years now. While much has been made of the money underwriting Vitter’s quest to become governor next year, his political machinations along the same path have gone largely unseen and underreported. But make no mistake: His moves are just as important as his money.
First and foremost, he can be credited as one of the chief architects behind Congressman Bill Cassidy’s U.S. Senate campaign this year. Vitter’s sights have long been set on incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, and a victory for Cassidy would be a victory for Vitter. Landrieu has been a thorn in the side of Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Vitter surely wants to pull it out, albeit for his own sake.
Retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, the other Republican running for the Senate, may have been more successful had Vitter not intervened. Vitter blocked major funding sources for Maness on the right in Louisiana, forcing the tea party favorite to rely heavily on out-of-state money.
As for Cassidy, Vitter cleared the rest of the GOP field for him early on, convincing Congressman John Fleming, state Rep. Paul Hollis and former Congressman Jeff Landry to sit this one out. That helps explain Vitter’s encouraging words for Landry’s attorney general bid and makes one wonder if Fleming might be positioned to run for Vitter’s seat, should Vitter be elected governor.
If Vitter is successful in 2015, one of his first official acts would be to appoint his replacement in Washington. In turn, that has spurred speculation about how that might factor in his gubernatorial campaign. If he wanted to, Vitter could use the perk to convince another candidate to get out of the race and endorse him instead. Or he could use the appointment to get someone, possibly a stalking horse, into the race. But Vitter said in an earlier interview that neither are options.
“There will be absolutely no understanding, arrangement, or deal tying any appointment to the campaign in any way,” he said.
Party officials say Vitter is angling to be the top GOP influencer at an opportune time. The party needs a figurehead to keep it financially afloat. While Jindal has done that for the past several years, his priorities have changed as he has looked nationally. Vitter is helping fill a fundraising void, as is Majority Whip U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise.
Aside from knocking Landrieu, Jindal hasn’t involved himself heavily in the Senate race. He has not yet endorsed Cassidy. Should he try to swoop in at the last minute and try to take credit for a GOP win, it’ll be difficult for him to steal any thunder from Vitter.
Joel DiGrado, Vitter’s former communications director, was loaned out to Cassidy as campaign manager at the very beginning of the race. In September, Vitter was knocking on doors with a national anti-abortion group campaigning against Landrieu. Last week, he stood alongside U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona during campaign stops with Cassidy. Vitter played a lead role in getting the former presidential candidate to Louisiana.
The next big move involves Vitter carrying over any accomplishments from the Senate race into his run for governor. In addition to Landry’s campaign for attorney general, there have been hints of support for Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who is running for lieutenant governor and lost a previous bid with Vitter’s backing, remains a question mark. Vitter hasn’t publicly voiced support for Nungesser’s newest campaign yet. If anything, Vitter appears closer to Jefferson Parish President John Young, also a candidate for lieutenant governor. Such a move would help Vitter make up ground in Jefferson, where Sheriff Newell Normand is backing Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne on the top of the 2015 ballot.
Vitter’s bold moves during this extended election cycle foreshadow the coming maneuvers of a man hell-bent on not only taking over the Louisiana Republican Party, but also the state’s governing class. While Vitter has long been involved with Bayou State politics, the ongoing Senate race may very well be a turning point—and a litmus test.