How David Vitter got on top of his sex scandal
Oftentimes, a politician caught in a sex scandal is forced to slink from office, his reputation stained and his popularity hovering somewhere between "Alex Rodriguez" and "dog turds." Such scandals can, understandably, be career killers.
Former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) resigned from Congress when he was caught in a sexting affair, and then nuked his attempted mayoral comeback campaign by doing the same. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) resigned and fell short in his own comeback bid because he'd been caught frequenting high-end prostitutes.
Then there's Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R), a self-styled family values conservative who in 2007 admitted to having been a client of the infamous "D.C. Madam," Deborah Jeane Palfrey. Soon after his admission and public apology, Vitter resigned from office and left politics for good.
Ha, just kidding: He hung around Congress and, less than three years later, won a resounding reelection. This week, he announced he would run for governor in Louisiana in 2015. He's widely considered the early frontrunner.
So what gives? How did Vitter, despite getting tangled in a sex scandal that undercut his social conservative image, not only hang on, but come out smelling like roses?
For one, his scandal was less visceral than most. True, he confessed to patronizing a notorious prostitution ring, and Palfrey, facing jail time for running the operation, killed herself. But Vitter's personal involvement never offered the kind of salacious details that make these stories so indelible. There were, to put it another way, no nudie pictures floating around the Internet.
Moreover, Vitter's affairs took place years before he admitted to them — his involvement only came to light when someone found his phone number in Palfrey's records — and, importantly, years before his next election. So when Vitter came clean, he said he had already "asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling." Then he refused to say any more "out of respect for my family," a nice call back to his family values cred, and a sign of his intent to snuff out the story through total silence.
"He hid for a year and a half," a political operative told The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky.
The Senate Ethics Committee never accused Vitter of wrongdoing — or at least not of doing anything wrong while in office — and Vitter avoided any criminal charges, too. Meanwhile, the state GOP establishment rallied behind Vitter, and no serious Democratic threat stepped forward to challenge him.
Come 2010, Louisiana voters didn't care so much about the distant scandal, and Vitter coasted to reelection by a 20-point margin, roughly in line with his previous margin of victory. The scandal didn't make a dent.
Louisiana's extreme political tilt had a role in saving Vitter's career, too.
Romney carried the state by 17 percentage points in 2012; McCain carried it by a little more four years earlier. In other words, Vitter had a huge built-in electoral advantage. He was even able to comfortably run racially insensitive campaign ads raising the specter of illegal immigration, like this one:
Thanks to that large Republican base, Vitter's approval rating is now solidly back in positive territory, cresting as high as 60 percent in one poll last year. Though the gubernatorial election is almost two years away, that's a pretty good starting point.