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History, dynamics confirm Vitter's favored position

Befitting its name, this space seeks to go beyond what the media reports to give readers additional insights, clarifications, and corrections into what is reported as news. A recent article about the burgeoning U.S. Senate race in Louisiana provides grist for the mill of purpose on this account.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune published a piece in which the author asserts Republican incumbent Sen. David Vitter has a good advantage in his reelection bid over Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon in part because 2010 will not feature a presidential election and historically the party that held the White House would lose seats in midterm elections. While this particularly is true in the House (violated only 3 times since the beginning of the Civil War although twice in the last decade of midterm elections), it is not particularly the case with Senate seats where in the post-World War II period it has been little more than a crapshoot barely favoring the out-party (for a simple discussion of the theory behind it all, see here). So this factor only slightly favors Vitter, if at all.

A colleague of mine also joins the consensus surrounding the likelihood of Vitter’s reelection, but adds a disclaimer that working against Vitter was that, historically, the Louisiana electorate has favored “conservative” Democrats for the Senate and Republicans for the presidency. That statement might have been true a decade ago, but it was Vitter himself with his 2004 election that broke the mold and has signaled that era likely is finished.

Perhaps more historically relevant is that Louisiana has a penchant for reelecting its incumbent senators who want another term. The last time is did not happen was in Huey Long’s election in 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression. Finally, it is doubtful whether Melancon can be called “conservative.” Certainly his American Conservative Union voting scorecard does not support that label: at an average of 46.22 (where 100 means a perfect conservative voting record) for his lifetime, and 12 for 2008, means at best he can call himself moderate or, more accurately, leaning liberal. Therefore, this factor works decisively in the favor of Vitter.

The only way Melancon has a chance to win by his own doing is by conning enough voters into thinking he leans more to the right than he does, that he shows some independence from the liberal Democrat leadership, and he is more trustworthy than Vitter. But he largely already has disarmed himself in trying to make himself appear more conservative than he really is. At present, the two biggest issues of the upcoming contest nationwide are government spending and health care. On the former, Melancon already has sunk himself with slavish support for any request made by Democrats – even as he claims to be a fiscal conservative. On the latter, Melancon to date has tried to walk a tightrope, so far voting in the main against current Democrat proposals – but even there left himself exposed by casting a procedural vote that allowed a Democrat proposal that would in effect publicly fund abortion to advance. If Vitter hammers home these actions, Melancon has no defense.

Nor does Melancon have a convincing argument concerning putative independence. Since 2008, he has voted with Democrat House leaders about 90 percent of the time, and with Democrat Pres. Barack Obama 84 percent of the time. And, given the actions listed above, reminding voters of them can effectively counteract any of the few deviations Melancon could try to cherry-pick as examples of his presumed “independence.”

In fact Melancon essentially surrendered the trust issue as well. He will try to capitalize on references to Vitter’s involvement in a prostitution ring almost a decade ago, although Vitter never has been charged with or proven to have committed any improprieties, nor did any of that have any connection to doing his job as an elected official. However, Vitter can point out Melancon cannot be trusted on something that does relate to his job, that he says one thing (that he’s a fiscal conservative) but does another (votes for the biggest budget-busting, most redistributive supplemental spending bill in the country’s history, among other things) – plus that the Democrat plays fast and loose with taxpayer dollars by taking junkets. Simply, there’s no opening for Melancon to make any inroads given the dynamics of this contest.

With over a year to go, plenty can happen that could produce situations for Melancon to exploit and thus make the election closer – or conversely that Vitter could use to really blow it open. Unless something unusual happens, or unless Vitter draws a competitive opponent for the Republican nomination who campaigns with reckless abandon (not likely), it is still Vitter’s race to lose.

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