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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

A woman in the sex trade cost New York governor Eliot Spitzer his office. Will a woman in the sex trade save Louisiana Sen. David Vitter? Possibly, but let me explain.

The big news last week in the 2010 Louisiana U.S. Senate race was that Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon will challenge Vitter for his seat. That, coupled with Vitter’s residual problems stemming from his 2007 “Canal Street madam” scandal, in which Vitter was implicated as a john who used a high-priced prostitution service, has put Vitter in serious electoral jeopardy.

So what are Melancon’s prospects? A late-July poll, taken before Melancon’s announcement, showed Vitter anchored around 44 percent on several measures. Here are the key graphs from Public Policy Polling’s write-up of their results:

When you pit Vitter against a generic Democrat … he leads 44-38. And when you test him specifically against potential opponent Charlie Melancon, that advantage rises to 44-32.

That 44% seems to be the magic number when it comes to Vitter right now. His approval rating is also 44%, with 36% disapproving and the percentage of voters with a favorable opinion of him is 44% as well, compared to 39% who view him negatively.

So he’s definitely below the 50% mark considered safe for an incumbent, but he’s not that far below it and at least initially voters still prefer him to letting the seat change parties.

One wild card in this race is the possibility that adult film star Stormy Daniels will run, too. It’s not clear what her party affiliation is, but Daniels says she wants to eliminate the federal income tax and replace it with a national sales tax. It’s also unclear whether there’s any real momentum for her candidacy: The “Draft Stormy” website, which is an independent site unaffiliated with the actress, has gone several months without an update.

As Daniels herself indicated during one of the interviews she conducted after announcing her “exploratory” committee (insert your own double-entendre here), she may be less interested in running as she is in compelling somebody more serious and experienced to plunge into the race against Vitter. Here’s what she told FOX News back on June 7 (full video above):

“If I were an outsider looking in I’d think [my candidacy] sounds ludicrous. It really does. And I guess the whole thing is, if they dislike David Vitter so much that they think I’m the best person for the job, then that’s kind of scary. And, as I’ve said before, maybe I’m not, and perhaps me bringing attention to the issues at hand and the state of the Senate in Louisiana, maybe I will encourage someone to step up and really give him a good challenge. And if not, then I’m willing to do everything i can in my power to make it legit and, like I said, do the best I can do.”

So Melancon’s announcement may be sufficient for Daniels to bolt.

Now, the conventional wisdom is that having Daniels in the race would provide a constant, painful reminder of Vitter’s sexual indiscretions. That makes sense–although I’d caution that, compared to porn stardom, mere solicitation of prostitutes (even if illegal) pales somewhat.

But having Daniels, or really any other legit third (and/or fourth or fifth) candidate in the race, could very well complicate matters for Melancon–as Democratic Rep. Chris John learned in 2004. That year, Vitter narrowly avoided a runoff, capturing 51 percent of the vote against three Democratic challengers. The crucial factor here is Louisiana’s electoral system which, as most of you surely know, requires a strict majority, rather than a mere plurality of the vote, to win; if no candidate receives an absolute majority the top two vote-getters go to a run-off.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s presume from the PPP results that Vitter will do no worse than 44 percent. That said, Melancon will need to get 50 percent of the remaining 56 percent to avoid the run-off, which will be hard enough. Still, Melancon really wants to avoid having to go to a run-off, because in run-offs voter turnout rates tend to drop in ways that favor Republicans. (Just ask Georgia’s Jim Martin.)

And if, in fact, a simple, head-to-head matchup with Vitter is the ideal scenario for Melancon to unseat Vitter, the possible addition of other candidates–be they former porn stars or not–only complicates matters for the Democratic congressman. Which is why, crazy as it may sound, the Porn Star’s candidacy could actually help the John.

CORRECTION: I was unaware that in 2006 Louisiana eliminated the so-called “jungle primary” system for federal elections, so there will in fact be a traditional primary and thus only one Democratic and Republican nominee for the 2010 senate race. My thanks to Kevin Franck of the Louisiana Democratic Party for alerting me to the change, and my apologies to readers for not knowing about the change. That said, Melancon, presuming he’s the nominee and Vitter is too, will not have to worry about the complications that faced Chris John in 2004.

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