Stephanie Grace: Vitter’s trial balloon causing a stir

U.S. Sen. David Vitter may be playing coy by announcing that he’ll soon announce whether he plans to run for governor in 2015, but even his pre-announcement provides a certain measure of clarity.

We will soon know what sort of race we’re in for. If Vitter says next month that he wants to stay in Washington, look for a 21-month free-for-all featuring nearly everyone who’s anyone, or hopes to be, gunning for the big job.

But if Vitter confirms that he plans to be a candidate, expect a nearly two-year campaign, and a field drastically pruned by his mere presence on the ballot.

A campaign without Vitter could take many shapes; under one possible scenario, representatives from what you might call the three major branches of the current state GOP would duke it out, with Treasurer John Kennedy hailing from the Vitter wing, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle linked to his former boss, outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne holding his own, separate power base (of the three, only Dardenne has openly confirmed his intentions and started planning his campaign as of yet). Each would likely make a play for the right flank of the field, although each has past legislative votes (in Dardenne’s case) or party affiliations (in Kennedy’s and Angelle’s cases) that could undermine his claim. The result could be an ideological muddle.

A campaign that includes Vitter would shape up very differently, which is probably one reason he’s considering staking his claim so soon. He’s not only the biggest name and the polls’ initial frontrunner — a position that could scare off potential opponents or dry up their fundraising — but he’s also the undeniable ideologue of the bunch.

That gives him a potential leg up in an open primary, particularly if Democratic candidate and state Rep. John Bel Edwards makes headway or if a better known Democrat jumps in. If Vitter makes it into the runoff against any Democrat, the state’s voting patterns would make him a clear favorite.

Or, it could weaken him, if the Democrats don’t effectively compete — a real possibility given the party’s recent track record — and a more moderate Republican such as Dardenne makes it into the runoff against Vitter and builds a coalition of centrists, Democrats, and probably any Republican women who still find the senator’s old prostitution scandal a turnoff.

Still, although a win would certainly be no sure thing, there’s a lot in an early announcement for Vitter.

Not only would he intimidate potential opponents into standing down, but he’d also be able to tempt them with the possibility of another, equally enticing job: his own. A Vitter win would leave his Senate seat open in mid-term, and a properly timed resignation would even allow him to appoint his own successor. That’s quite a carrot/stick combo.

He’d get the unpleasant part of any future run, all the speculation over how he managed to survive the scandal in the first place, largely behind him.

There’s also a less obvious plus for him. As an announced candidate and instant major contender, he could get even more involved in legislative affairs than he has been to date, and start building alliances with lawmakers who’d want to be on his good side, just in case. This would let him make mischief with Jindal’s priorities, which he’d probably enjoy just for the sport of it. But more importantly, it could keep the current governor from implementing policies that would leave a future governor’s hands tied, particularly when it comes to spending.

As one political veteran marveled recently, this strategy would amount to Vitter taking a page from another, previous nemesis who also lived in the Governor’s Mansion: Edwin Edwards, who ran something of an administration in exile during Gov. Dave Treen’s single term as he plotted his own eventual return to office.

Vitter and Edwards still surely have no use for one another, but give the senator this. He knows a winning strategy when he sees one.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.