U.S. Sen. David Vitter enters 2015 race for governor

U.S. Sen. David Vitter put an end to speculation about his political plans Tuesday by announcing he will run for governor next year.

Vitter, R-La., cautioned that an active campaign still is a year away. However, his entrance immediately kicked the idling 2015 gubernatorial race into full throttle. The fight now is on for another candidate to force a runoff against Vitter, who brushed off the ashes of a potentially career-killing scandal and coasted to re-election in the U.S. Senate.

In an email to supporters, Vitter said he and his family decided to run for governor after thought, prayer and discussion. Vitter’s staff shared the email with the news media shortly before it went viral.

“I believe that as our next Governor, I can have a bigger impact addressing the unique challenges and opportunities we face in Louisiana ... helping us truly reach our full potential,” Vitter wrote.

Vitter’s decision dramatically changes the dynamics in an open race. With Gov. Bobby Jindal left on the sidelines because of term limits, political experts agree that Vitter jumps to the lead position in a GOP pack of candidates that could include Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, state Treasurer John Kennedy and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle. On the Democratic side is Amite state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a U.S. Military Academy graduate and former U.S. Army officer.

Even the tarnish of Vitter’s sex scandal seems surmountable after he easily won re-election in 2010 against then-Congressman Charlie Melancon.

“It’s his (Vitter’s) to lose given the advantages he has,” LSU political scientist Kirby Goidel said. “He has a great campaign organization. He’s very disciplined. He’s on message.”

Until shortly before Christmas, Vitter rejected ideas that his focus was on anything but congressional issues. Vitter, 52, abruptly announced that he planned to spend the holidays considering a gubernatorial race with his wife, Wendy, and their four children.

Much of the groundwork for a run was in place long before the Vitters decorated their Christmas tree. A third-party super PAC, The Fund for Louisiana’s Future, raised $1.5 million last year to support Vitter’s re-election or a run for governor.

Vitter kept in touch with constituents through town hall meetings. Ever methodical, Vitter formed ties with legislators and kept his finger on the pulse of state politics. He helped launch the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority in 2005 to elect conservative leaders.

Pearson Cross, head of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Department of Politics, Law and International Relations, said the question at this point is who can block what appears to be a direct path to the Governor’s Office. He said another Republican needs to force Vitter into a runoff in order to pick up votes from disaffected minorities and Democrats.

Without any strong Republican challengers, Jindal glided into re-election against Democratic schoolteacher Tara Hollis in 2011. Although Edwards is an elected official with better pull in fundraising circles than Hollis, only one Democrat holds statewide office in Louisiana.

“They have to figure out a way to get into a runoff with David Vitter, if they want a chance,” Cross said. “To do that, they almost have to convince John Bel Edwards not to run.”

Edwards gave no indication Tuesday that he is looking to drop his gubernatorial bid. He said he looks forward to a spirited campaign.

“While Sen. Vitter has been engaging in Washington-style politics to promote himself, not his constituents, I have been here at home working to craft a more fair state budget, and to protect our beloved schools and hospitals from further devastating cuts,” Edwards said.

Dardenne said Tuesday that he expected Vitter to jump into the race.

“I am deeply humbled by the outpouring of support I’ve received from every corner of Louisiana,” Dardenne said in a statement forwarded by his campaign staff.

“Our campaign will focus on detailing the promises I’ve kept to the people of Louisiana and my positive vision for our state moving forward,” Dardenne said. “To that end, we will continue to actively fundraise and share our message with folks across the state.”

Neither Kennedy nor Angelle would confirm a run for governor Tuesday. Both have been largely silent about the race although Kennedy let it be known that he has a $3 million campaign war chest.

Asked about Vitter at a news conference, Jindal thanked the senator for working with him on education changes.

“It’s far too early for me to be making endorsements, thinking about making endorsements for him or for any other candidate. … I have enjoyed working with him,” the governor said.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, was quick to applaud Vitter’s decision.

“David is a strong conservative leader with a proven record as a bold reformer who fights for the hard-working taxpayers of our state,” Scalise said in a prepared statement.

Scalise represents Vitter’s former U.S. House district.

During a tour of New Orleans’ port, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., urged voters to pick a governor with the people’s interests at heart instead of an opportunist.

“The people are going to have to decide,” Landrieu said. “And hopefully they’ll choose someone that will advance the economic agenda of the state, as opposed to their own political interests, which I think is, unfortunately, what Gov. Jindal has done.”

Vitter did not respond to a request for comment on his decision Tuesday. In his email to supporters, he vowed to make the Governor’s Office his last political job, either elected or appointed.

“My only agenda will be to do what’s best for all Louisianians, from our best and brightest to our most vulnerable,” he wrote.

In Washington, Vitter has worked in the Senate to promote more bipartisan legislation, while also in more recent months taking out a position as a man of the people while aggravating his colleagues over “Obamacare” exemptions and contributing to congressional gridlock.

Vitter successfully joined with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., over the omnibus Water Resources Development Act that is still pending after passing the Senate.

He also teamed up with liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, over “Too Big to Fail” banking regulation legislation that would make so-called megabanks set aside more capital reserves. That legislation has yet to go anywhere though.

However, as the Affordable Care Act implementation neared last year, Vitter frustrated a lot of Democrats and Republicans alike with his legislation to force members of Congress and their staffers to lose their federal health insurance contributions that Vitter contends is a special Washington exemption out of “Obamacare.”

Frustrated with Vitter’s demands to get his proposal on the issue considered, one piece of draft legislation leaked to the media would deny lawmakers their health care government contributions if there is “probable cause” they solicited prostitutes. In 2007, Vitter admitted to committing a “serious sin.”

Vitter responded by filing ethics complaints against Boxer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and any senator or staffer involved in drawing up the draft legislation. Reid accused Vitter of playing politics for a gubernatorial run.

Seven years ago, Vitter admitted he committed a “serious sin” after his phone number appeared in the records of a woman who ran a prostitution ring. The senator’s wife, Wendy, stood by him. Vitter quelled the media storm by calmly ignoring it and concentrating on his congressional work. He later easily won re-election.

State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, released a scathing statement Tuesday about Vitter’s gubernatorial bid. Peterson, D-New Orleans, called Vitter an obstructionist and a failure. She questioned his ability to work across political lines. She assigned him a .000 batting average for the success of his legislation last year. What she didn’t mention was his sex scandal.

Washington, D.C., attorney Charlie Spies, who heads the super PAC supporting Vitter, said every candidate has failings that fall under the category of “He’s great, but … ” Spies helped found a super PAC for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. He said Romney’s problem was he was a Mormon from Massachusetts.

Spies said the focus of the governor’s race will be real issues such as jobs and education. He said Vitter is a leader on energy issues vital to Louisiana’s economy.

“The election’s going to be about who has the better vision. … I doubt there will be a perfect candidate running,” Spies said.

Koran Addo, Mark Ballard, Jordan Blum and Jaquetta White contributed to this report.