Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How David Vitter got away with it

Three years ago, the "family values" conservative was caught in a hooker scandal. Now, he's cruising to reelection

How David Vitter got away with itSometimes the strangest stories in politics are hiding in plain sight. So it is with Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana.

Vitter, a first-term senator, rose to infamy three years ago, when his phone number appeared in the records of the escort agency run by the so-called D.C. Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey. In the wake of the disclosure, Vitter made a de facto admission of having paid for sex, confessing to "a very serious sin in my past." 

The careers of other Republicans have been vaporized by infractions that could well be viewed as less serious. Last month, Indiana Rep. Mark Souder resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair. A hitherto-obscure California state assemblyman, Mike Duvall, departed last fall after being picked up on an open mic boasting about his amorous activities with women other than his wife. 

The taboo that continues to cling to prostitution -- along with the salient fact that soliciting a prostitute is illegal -- would have been enough, one might have thought, to put an end to Vitter's career. This is especially true given the contrast between his actions and his ardent social conservatism. (The year before he was ensnared in the scandal, Vitter declared himself "a conservative who opposes radically redefining marriage, the most important social institution in human history.")

Yet Vitter does not seem to face any great peril in his battle for reelection in November. 

A survey from the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling (PPP) earlier this month gave him a 46-37 lead over his Democratic challenger, Rep. Charlie Melancon. Other polls have given Vitter even wider leads. According to Real Clear Politics' running average, Vitter enjoys an average advantage of 15.7 points. Especially considering the national climate of 2010, and Louisiana's ideological bent, Vitter doesn't seem to have much to sweat.

Perhaps more important from Vitter's perspective, no serious challenge has materialized on his right flank. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council flirted with getting into the race, as did Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne. In the end, both men stepped back.

"It takes more than one sex scandal to bring down a Louisiana politician," is the salty verdict of John Maginnis, a Baton Rouge-based political journalist who, as the author of a book about the libidinous former Gov. Edwin Edwards, knows what he is talking about. Louisiana voters, Maginnis adds, "are able to separate human failures from one's performance in office."

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