If the bombastic David Vitter ascends to the governor’s office, who is his likely replacement in the Senate?
After the tedious inevitability of Bobby Jindal’s second gubernatorial campaign in 2011, the vibrant 2015 contest, featuring U.S.
Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, is refreshing.
Recent polls indicate that, barring a calamity of Biblical proportions, Vitter will gain enough votes to advance to the second round. The identity of his opponent in the runoff, however, is less certain.
Edwards, who leads the Democratic Caucus in the House, runs second in nearly every poll and is Vitter’s most likely opponent. However, Edwards’s campaign is hampered by a lack of name recognition and lackluster fund-raising. These factors, combined with Louisiana’s dwindling number of white Democratic voters, make victory for Edwards in a runoff against Vitter quite unlikely. Given the challenges that Edwards’s campaign faces, there is some chance an insurgent Angelle or resurgent Dardenne may slip past him on the strength of independent voters and the real disdain with which some Republicans hold for Vitter. Thus, it is the political juggernaut that is David Vitter, combined with the candidacies of Angelle and Dardenne and the slim but real possibility of a Republican versus Republican runoff, that make this year’s contest for governor so riveting.
A hotly contested race of uncertain outcome always produces a number of secondary themes or items of interest for those who derive their entertainment from thinking about politics. One of the more intriguing sidelines to this year’s race for governor concerns Vitter’s current Senate seat. Although Huey Long served as both governor and senator after ousting Joseph E. Ransdell in 1930, ours is a more litigious (if not saner) age, which suggests that should Vitter gain his desire to view Louisiana from the commanding heights of the Capitol’s 4th floor, he must resign his Senate seat.
Vitter’s likely victory in the governor’s race and departure from the Senate has had quite an effect on the political class in Louisiana, there being nothing which serves to raise the blood pressure of an aspiring politico so much as an untethered Senate seat. To add additional zest to an already fascinating scenario, a Gov. Vitter would have the power to choose the person to serve out the rest of his unexpired term, until an election could take place in 2016.
Current speculation focuses on two related questions: Who would this shortterm replacement be, and who has the best chance of being elected to fill Vitter’s seat in 2016? The number of people well-positioned to win a Senate contest in Louisiana is fairly limited, because the resources necessary for such a contest are possessed by very few. The most likely place to look for future senators is in the House of Representatives. Lyndon Baines Johnson once quipped that every senator looks in the mirror and sees a president. But while senators are likely to be disappointed in that regard, according to statistics compiled by Eric Ostermeier of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, congressmen looking in the mirror and seeing a senator have more reason to be optimistic. Ostermeier reports that 53 of the 100 senators today were previously members of the House, the most since at least 1899; congressmen are particularly successful when campaigning for an open Senate seat.
The second wellspring of candidates for U.S. Senate seats are those holding statewide office. In Louisiana, these officials have a double advantage in that they can retain their state position while campaigning for a federal post, quite unlike former congressmen John Cooksey, Jimmy Hayes and Chris John, who learned too late the inadvisability of giving up safe House seats to pursue their ambitions in the Senate. Statewide elected officials have obviously already run statewide campaigns, an advantage that enhances their name recognition with Louisiana’s 2.9 million voters and connects them with all districts and regions. This compares to the roughly 765,000 voters that make up each congressional district.
Assessing the prospects for a 2016 race for Vitter’s Senate seat, four Republican politicians seem likely to run: Republican U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany of southwest Louisiana (3rd Congressional District) and John Fleming of northwest Louisiana (4th); state Treasurer John Kennedy. Former Congressman Jeff Landry, who is campaigning hard for the state attorney general position, and Senate also-ran/ retired Col. Rob Maness are two less certain candidates.
Other members of the Louisiana congressional delegation are less likely to run. Steve Scalise is enmeshed in the House leadership, while newly minted congressmen Ralph Abraham and Garrett Graves (Districts 5 and 6, respectively) are too green. District 2 Rep. Cedric Richmond is a Democrat in a state that no longer elects Democrats to statewide positions. Similar problems limit the electability of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who would face the same devastating attacks that doomed his sister’s chances against Bill Cassidy.
In the end, the question comes down to Vitter: What will he do with the opportunity to name a successor? Will he take this opportunity to put a lasting stamp on his Senate seat by naming someone likely to seek the seat permanently in the 2016 election? He has nothing to gain, and quite a bit to lose, by not naming a potent successor. By naming a successor, he vastly increases the chances he will be succeeded by someone with whom he is ideologically compatible. Such a person would, of necessity, be a Vitter supporter and might remain “his man” for some time as well.
With these points in mind, I expect Vitter to select Fleming as his heir and replacement should Vitter win the 2015 race for governor. There are a number of reasons for this. Fleming is ideologically similar to Vitter, he isn’t likely to secondguess Vitter’s work as governor (as Vitter has been wont to do with Jindal), like Vitter he’s a tea party favorite, and he shares the cantankerous streak that has characterized Vitter’s tenure in the Senate. Finally, Fleming is unlikely to jump the rails and head off in his own direction.
Adding support to this analysis, Vitter has not shied away from picking favorites (and making enemies) in the past, as when he announced his support of Billy Nungesser against Jay Dardenne in the 2011 lieutenant governor’s race. Vitter doesn’t (and won’t) see the need for neutrality: He doesn’t make nice. So, despite having endorsed Vitter for governor, Boustany and Kennedy shouldn’t count on him returning the favor. Neither politician is as similar to Vitter as is Fleming, and both are likely to resist being Vitter’s “man” in the Senate. Vitter was instrumental in electing Cassidy in 2014, and the election of Fleming would provide him with two solicitous senators from Louisiana.
If Vitter does name Fleming to succeed him, he gives him an enormous hand-up in the election in 2016. During his year of incumbency, Fleming can introduce himself to voters statewide; he can direct federal largess to key regions, and he will have the potent support of newly elected Gov. Vitter, including access to Vitter’s fund-raising network. He would thus go from being the least-known candidate in a three-way race to being the frontrunner.
Where does this leave Boustany and Kennedy? It would leave Boustany less likely to leave his safe 3rd District seat to challenge Fleming, although he could probably win in a fair fight. For Kennedy, running remains a good option because he risks nothing. He could run for the Senate, lose, and then go on to serve indefinitely as state treasurer. Having spent the last four years of the Jindal administration as its most vocal and biting critic, Kennedy could simply transfer his rancor to the new occupant of the mansion. Although it is tempting to speculate about the outcome of a three-way election between Fleming, Boustany and Kennedy unfettered by an interested incumbent, Vitter will likely appoint Fleming to fulfill his remaining term in the Senate and irrevocably change the dynamics (and outcome) of the 2016 race.
Dr. Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, Southern and Louisiana politics. Contact him at [email protected].