Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter announced yesterday that he's going to run in his state's 2015 gubernatorial contest. Louisiana law allows Vitter to run while remaining a sitting senator and provides him with the opportunity to name his replacement should he win. But what's more interesting than his decision is how it might impact the Senate contest in 2014.
Since early in Louisiana's history, it's been a battleground. As the state's website details, Spain, France, Great Britain and the United States all fought for it. Nearly 200 years ago, Gen. Andrew Jackson memorably defended it. And in the last two decades, Republicans and Democrats have looked to win it.
At the presidential level, Louisiana has become a solid "red" state. The last Democratic nominee to win there was Bill Clinton in 1996. In 2012, President Obama earned only about 41 percent of the vote – which was an improvement over his 2008 showing of 39.9 percent.
Nevertheless, Louisiana's statewide races are competitive. Since 1995, Republicans have won four of five gubernatorial contests, and Democrats have won four of five senatorial elections.
Looking at the races, there's little doubt that Democrats owe much of their success to Sen. Mary Landrieu and her shrewd sense of how to balance national party demands with local opinion and policy interests. Landrieu is also Catholic, and as Nate Silver has explained, Catholics constitute a large share of the population in Louisiana (nearly 29 percent by Gallup's estimates) and many now vote Republican at the presidential level. Landrieu's success, while surely aided by her family's political history in Louisiana is also helped by her religious affiliation. Case in point: in 2008, when she and Obama were both on the ballot and Catholics comprised 31 percent of the electorate, the state's exit polls show that Obama won 27 percent of Catholics, whereas Landrieu earned 48 percent of Catholics.
Further, Landrieu has likely been helped by Louisiana's "jungle primary" system, where all partisans compete on one ballot; to win, a candidate must earn more than 50 percent of the vote.
In the last five gubernatorial and senatorial elections where an incumbent stood for re-election, only one has lost (Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco in the 2007 election, only two years after Hurricane Katrina); four have won. Since an incumbent rarely draws a serious challenge from their own party and the opposition is split between several candidates, making it either over the 50 percent bar or into the runoff is almost assured. And with the runoff scheduled just five weeks after the November "primary," it's difficult for the opposition to come together, and persuade their voters to make another trip to the polling booth. In short, an open seat offers the opposition party its best chance.
And this brings me back to Vitter. If you were a Republican looking to win a statewide office in Louisiana, would you prefer to take on Vitter (who carries personal baggage) in an open seat gubernatorial contest, where you could make much of his wanting to "have his cake and eating it, too" (staying in the Senate while he runs for governor), or Landrieu, who out of all the vulnerable incumbent Democratic senators seems to be the most capable of hanging onto her seat? Or would you consider playing the long game – help Vitter win the gubernatorial and either try to secure his appointment to the Senate seat or plan to run in the special election to be held shortly after. My answer would be either take on Vitter or look to his take his Senate seat.
And this could prove to be a fortunate turn of events for the Republicans. It may help them reduce the number of candidates running against Landrieu, which may make it more difficult for her to survive.
While it's difficult to know how both parties and all of the Republicans are going to play their hands, one thing is certain: the politics in the Pelican State over the next two years, thanks to Vitter's decision, are going to be some of the most fascinating in the nation.