Stephanie Grace: Vitter’s political instincts canny

By now, nearly seven years after the ugly revelation of a “serious sin” that would have sent most politicians into an early retirement, Sen. David Vitter’s past and continued presence on the scene feels kind of like politics as usual.

For a reminder that it’s no such thing, just think back to the tenuous days in the summer 2007, when his trajectory could have gone a very different direction. In the immediate aftermath of news that Vitter’s phone number was in the records of a Washington, D.C., call girl operation, the voting public heard little from the senator himself. But behind the scenes, people involved say, he was busy furiously cobbling together a show of support from fellow Republicans — which, when rolled out, trumpeted his intention to ride out the scandal. A firm endorsement from his wife, Wendy, sealed the deal.

In retrospect, Vitter had circumstances on his side. Republicans had reason to rally behind him, given that then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco would have appointed a Democrat to fill his potential vacancy (Just months later, the GOP would be far less forgiving when Idaho Sen. Larry Craig was arrested in an airport men’s room; Craig’s state was led by a Republican who could replace him without upsetting the balance of power, so there was no show of support for him). Vitter’s good luck would continue for years to come, like when the Senate declined to censure him on the technical grounds that his transgressions took place while he was in the House.

But Vitter also had a keen sense of strategy working for him. Not to mention sheer force of will. And of course, no small amount of nerve.

Love him, hate him, grudgingly admire or simply tolerate him — those last two being common stances among establishment politicians who knew him early in his career — it’s hard to argue with the fact that Vitter’s political instincts stand out, even in a state that has launched many a storied career. Now that he’s announced plans to run for governor, those instincts should be on full display and likely will set the tone for the two-year campaign to replace Gov. Bobby Jindal.

To understand Vitter’s role in this race is to go well beyond the fact that he’s still standing, or that he’ll have all the money he needs even if that pesky $100,000 limit on contributions to his super PAC stands, or that, with Jindal out of the picture, he’s easily the biggest Republican dog around.

The keys to his front-runner status are really most evident in his history.

He understands, perhaps better than most politicians, the mechanics of building support. Many of his fellow pols in the Louisiana Legislature couldn’t stand him, in part because he attacked their cozy arrangements, but he managed to channel that resentment to his advantage with voters.

Once he left for Congress, Vitter turned around and built a political base in Baton Rouge by helping Republicans gain a majority in the Legislature, and continuing to offer support and advice from afar. It certainly didn’t hurt that Vitter had championed term limits that would eventually force out his old adversaries and create opportunities for a younger and friendlier generation.

Since announcing for governor, he’s even reportedly been reaching out to Democratic politicians — likely out of an understanding that, should he wind up in an all-GOP runoff, Democrats could well determine the final outcome.

Just as vitally, Vitter’s got a keen ear for messages that fit the moment and the race at hand, often blending his hard-right conservative politics with good old-fashioned populism.

When he ran for the Senate in 2004, he sewed up the right early on, then moved far enough to the left on targeted issues — things such as women’s health and access to cheap, reimported drugs from Canada — to win without a runoff.

In 2010, with memories of the scandal still relatively fresh, he tapped into tea party fury and made the election a referendum on President Barack Obama, not himself.

In Washington, he’s positioned himself as an outright obstruction to Democratic efforts, but also occasionally joined with prominent Democrats on issues such as preventing another big government bank bailout.

He’s already at it again. Just as Vitter’s long-ago reform crusade capitalized on widespread fatigue with then-Gov. Edwin Edwards’ ways, his initial announcement for governor clearly sought to tap into voter resentment over Jindal’s national aspirations.

“This will be my last political job, elected or appointed. Period,” Vitter said in an announcement video that also touched on reform, tax restructuring, education and, even, interestingly but vaguely, protecting the state’s most vulnerable residents. Was that an effort to soften his harsh public image? Could be.

This much is for sure. Vitter didn’t say any of it by accident. He doesn’t do much at all by accident.

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