To overcome a huge polling lead enjoyed by incumbent Republican Sen. David Vitter, challengers such as Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon have to hope all of the dominoes fall correctly to win his Senate seat. A recent ruling shows that, so far, it’s not happening, although this shows no signs of altering their tactics.
The Federal Election Commission unanimously ruled that a complaint concerning the financing of Vitter’s campaign made by Democrats was without merit. They accused Vitter of colluding to obscure a campaign donation from another Republican they said was too embarrassed to want to give money directly to Vitter’s reelection effort.
Months ago this was the first public salvo of Democrats, whose objective is to aid Melancon, in their chosen strategy to try to defeat Vitter. Knowing that Vitter’s record was a much better fit with a majority of Louisianans, they hoped to steer the campaign away from discussion of issues and to make it about Vitter’s character. Trying to take advantage of Vitter’s 2007 admission that he had committed an unspecified “serious sin” believed to be linked to a prostitution ring, they wanted to produce a series of presumed incidents reflecting that Vitter behaved with a unethical pattern.
Since then, they also have questioned another campaign contribution, said Vitter is against laws to help rape victims, purloined the Great Seal of the United States, and charged him with deliberately wanting to keep employed a previously-convicted employee accused of battering a woman. To date, all of this has drawn a yawn from the public that seems more interested in the substantial policy differences between Vitter and Melancon and thereby continues to indicate may more will vote for Vitter in the fall.
The other complaint seems as meritless as the one just dismissed, few in the public know, care, or believe Melancon’s version of Vitter’s hiring practices, and the other incidents the public sees as trivial, silly, and/or desperate of Melancon. With the complaints frivolous, Melancon and Democrats can’t really campaign on the serious sin or staffer issue because to do so directly points out the poverty of issues in his campaign. He easily can be said to be avoiding issues and bringing up distracting, unproven matters that have nothing to do with the contest, preferring to campaign sleazily while Vitter takes the high road – a perception which would cost Melancon even more votes.
To compensate, Melancon and Democrats may be branching out in this strategy with the possible insertion of a stalking horse candidate, former Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor, into the Republican primary. Traylor, whose behavior that many might judge unethical itself that currently is the subject of lawsuits, in a candidate forum showed no hesitation to base almost his entire pitch that Vitter is “ineffective” because he has behaved unethically.
Never mind that, even if Vitter could be considered unethical, that some past politicians (the 42nd President who argued that “is” had a contingent meaning and was convicted of lying in court in a matter related to the performance of his presidential duties springs to mind) that earned this label were very effective. Still, that Traylor would take this route adds more fuel to the fire that he is indeed a Melancon plant, since he must know (as any competent political scientist who studies campaigns and elections can tell him) a heavily negative campaign about opponents’ characters almost never wins and only succeeds when the opponent has serious legal problems.
So this perhaps tells us the direction of Melancon’s campaign. It will continue to avoid issues and to obscure them whenever possible, relying on personal attacks, maybe through other surrogate candidates. In fact, it probably will ignore adverse evidence such as the FEC ruling altogether and keep repeating the same mantra about Vitter over and over again in the hopes that if you tell a story often enough, no matter how little credibility it has, it acquires an air of validity. Which means the Melancon organization may produce, in a state with plenty of such examples in the past, the dirtiest campaign in Louisiana’s history.