Republican Sen. David Vitter started the Louisiana gubernatorial runoff behind Democratic State Rep. John Bel Edwards. But in the first week after the “jungle primary,” Vitter didn’t run any new positive ads touting his record. Instead, Vitter and his hard-nosed political consultants are throwing some racially charged heat, accusing Edwards of a plan to release “thugs” from prison.
The negative ad is not available on Vitter’s YouTube channel or website. But it was captured by Politico and has roiled the campaign.
Are John Bel Edwards and Barack Obama Releasing “Thugs” From Prison?
The ad is strangely amateurish, with a fuzzy audio track. Sticking with the Vitter campaign theme of tying Edwards to President Obama, the narrator darkly intones that the two both support releasing violent offenders from jail: “Obama dangerously calls for the release of 6,000 criminals from jail. Edwards joined Obama, promising at Southern University he’ll reduce 5,500 in Louisiana alone. 5,500 dangerous thugs, drug dealers, back into our neighborhood.”
The Edwards plan is similar to Obama’s. But both focus on nonviolent drug offenders, not people convicted of violent crimes. Liberals and conservatives have been working together as of late on reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenders to help with costly prison overcrowding. But the Vitter ad upsets that alliance.
The Vitter ad cites an Edwards speech from September, but does not include a quote or a sound bite. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Edwards said in the speech that he wanted Louisiana to no longer have the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and quoted him: “We will be number two in the nation in incarceration rates when I’m finished because it’s going to require us to take 5,500 inmates out of our prisons.”
Edwards told the paper that his plan “reducing the prison population through long-term solutions without harming public safety [with] pre-trial diversion programs, reform sentencing for non-violent offenders, and increase the use of specialty courts.”
Vitter Has Aired Racially Charged Ads Before
One Times-Picayune columnist, Jarvis DeBerry, ripped Vitter for emulating the 1988 “Willie Horton” attack on presidential candidate Michael Dukakis: “There’s the stench of Willie Horton in Vitter’s ad. If you can’t smell it, then you’re ignoring the race of the people who pop into your mind when you hear the word ‘thugs.'”
Vitter hasn’t flinched from racially charged ads before. A 2010 ad of his was called “racist” by immigrant rights activists, but Vitter still won.
So is Vitter simply doing what it takes to win in Louisiana? Maybe not. A poll taken shortly after the ad was placed showed Vitter behind by 20 points. And last year, a vulnerable Republican tried to play the Willie Horton card and it backfired badly, contributing to his defeat.
This Vitter ad may prove to be a test of how racial politics play in the today’s Louisiana – one the few states that currently has a nonwhite governor.