Louisiana doesn't conduct traditional primaries but instead has all candidates from all parties face one another in a so-called "jungle primary," with the top two vote-getters advancing to a runoff if no one clears 50 percent. Limited early polling shows Vitter as the strongest Republican, which is due in part to his higher name recognition. Certainly he's the best-known candidate on that list we rattled off just above. But if you're most familiar with Vitter thanks to his notorious admission that he had "sinned" when the D.C. Madam scandal broke loose in 2007, you might be wondering how Vitter wound up in the pole position for such a competitive race.
Part of the answer is that Vitter chose to weather out his ordeal, knowing that his next re-election campaign was several years away. Indeed, by the time 2010 rolled around, memories of Vitter's involvement with prostitutes had faded and he cruised to re-election. But just as important is Vitter's assiduous cultivation of the Republican establishment throughout Louisiana. Writing in the New Republic last year, Marin Cogan explained Vitter's fascinating ascendance:
Jindal was elected to the governor's mansion later that year , while the national press excoriated Vitter. But Vitter had already begun laying the groundwork for his ascendance in his home state. In his days as a state legislator, he had successfully pushed for term limits for legislators, forcing many of the lawmakers he had served alongside to give up their seats in 2007. Vitter began recruiting conservative candidates to replace them and helped fund campaigns through the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority (LCRM), a PAC he had co-founded a couple years earlier. He also personally reached out to Democrats in conservative districts, encouraging them to get ahead of the state's rightward turn.So Vitter not only helped oversee a changing of the guard in the legislature, but he ensured that these new cadres would be loyal to him. Vitter may seem like a guy dumb enough to get caught up in a high-profile prostitution bust, but this shows he's a whole lot savvier than many people think.
The Louisiana legislature didn't go red in 2007, but, thanks to a successful election cycle and a few high-profile Democratic defections, the House flipped in 2010. A year later, the state Senate followed suit. It was the first time Republicans controlled the legislature since Reconstruction. Scott Hobbs, a Louisiana-based political consultant, estimated that Vitter helped "at least sixty to seventy percent [of Republicans in the legislature] in some way" between 2007 and 2011. Now Baton Rouge is filled with Vitter-friendly pols, sometimes referred to as the "fiscal hawks." They've made Jindal's life a lot harder, attacking him for using accounting gimmicks to balance the state budget. Vitter has gotten in on the action too, castigating the governor for "kicking the can down the road—the sort of bad spending policy I'm constantly fighting in Washington."
Conventional wisdom chalks up Lyndon Johnson's ability to bend people to his will to his domineering style, but in reality, Johnson succeeded in getting things done because he'd done so many favors during his long career that everyone owed him. Vitter's following that path in Louisiana, and it will make him a force to be reckoned with on the campaign trail.