What’s in it for David Vitter?

Special to the Herald-Guide
September 09, 2011 at 9:22 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

By John Maginnis, LaPolitics.com

With the official campaign season set to begin, even critics have to marvel at the political handiwork of the pre-season’s most active player: Sen. David Vitter.

One has to go back to the Long era to find a politician as actively engaged as the junior senator is these days in elections for the Legislature, statewide offices, perhaps even for Congress next year. One has to ask: what’s in it for him?

It appeared at first to be an exercise in party-building when he released a target list of legislative seats held by Democrats that he would back Republican candidates to win, with the help of the well-funded Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, which he formed in 2007.

But when, moving onto statewide races, he ran out of Democrats to oppose, he began favoring some Republicans over others, including incumbents, with some personal score-settling along the way. And though congressional elections are a year off, recent actions suggest he might take sides between Republicans there too.

It just may be the competitive, aggressive nature of Vitter to not resist filling the vacuum left by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s benign neglect of political affairs that do not directly affect himself or his future. Tentative in backing candidates, when Jindal has, he has proven adept at picking losers, making him more tentative still.

The GOP Victory Fund that Jindal set up this year--seemingly in response to the LCRM--will wait until after qualifying before endorsing legislative candidates. By contrast, Vitter and the LCRM jumped out early to recruit Republican candidates, particularly active supporters of his re-election last year, while other Republicans were considering running. Party building or team building?

Vitter, who started out in the Legislature as a vocal opponent of former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ regime, says he aims to finish that work by bolstering the new Republican majority with “conservative, independent legislators.” A House of little Vitters would seem to suit him, and a Senate too.

He did not stop there, but began placing markers in statewide races. He started with the pointed gesture of endorsing the governor for re-election, despite that, as the press quickly noted, Jindal had not endorsed him the year before, making it seem big of Vitter. He added a pep talk, urging Jindal to be bold and conservative, which suggested the governor had not been so far.

Endorsing Attorney General Buddy Caldwell was an easy call, for the newly converted Republican is the incumbent, and his challenger former Congressman Joseph Cao, though also Republican, has too liberal a voting record for Vitter’s standards.

He got a bit bolder in endorsing Speaker of the House Jim Tucker over Secretary of State Tom Schedler, both Republicans. Tucker has been Vitter’s ally in challenging the Jindal administration’s initial plans for the proposed teaching hospital in New Orleans. Schedler may be the GOP incumbent, but he was not elected, having succeeded Jay Dardenne after he became lieutenant governor.

Dardenne, it turned out, was saved for last, when Vitter endorsed Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser over the elected incumbent Republican lieutenant governor. The senator did not directly criticize Dardenne, but his own ad consultant Jim St. Raymond, who will work on Nungesser’s campaign, did so for him, calling Dardenne “very liberal.”

Dardenne is no liberal, though neither is he a tea party favorite, nor Vitter’s. His greater offense could be that he entertained and did not discourage talk of his challenging Vitter last year. In the senator’s view, that is truly a serious sin, to be punished.

While busy with all this, Vitter took time to appear with Congressman Jeff Landry at town-hall meetings in Lake Charles and Lafayette, in the heart of Congressman Charles Boustany’s current district, which was merged with Landry’s in reapportionment. Don’t make too much of that, Vitter’s aides advised, just as the senator surely does not make much of the fact that Republican Boustany did not endorse him either.

So back to the question, what does David Vitter want, besides the destruction of his enemies? Perhaps he wants to be governor or, more ambitious than that, like Sen. Huey Long, to control whoever is, along with the rest of state politics, from now on. Is that too bold to ask?

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