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David Vitter’s unexpected defeat Saturday, his first in 24 years of public life, can be partially attributed to a digital strategy Democratic consultants supporting Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards used to exploit the senator’s greatest weakness: his entanglement in a 2007 prostitution scandal.
Consultant Trey Ourso said his anti-Vitter Gumbo PAC, which spent some $1.2 million on the Louisiana governor’s race as of Nov. 1, was able to use Facebook to revive a conversation among voters and journalists about the Republican’s use of prostitutes in D.C. and New Orleans.
“We drove a majority of our online dollars in the primary to Facebook. It created a conversation,” said Ourso, a partner in the Baton Rouge-based mail firm Ourso Beychok. “In the runoff leading up to the election, we continued to focus a lot on Facebook, but also expanded to digital advertising and video placement.”
By the Nov. 22 runoff vote, Gumbo PAC had more than 10,000 likes on its Facebook page. “When we would put something up there, particularly in the last four or five weeks, it just got spread around and shared,” he said. “There were lot of comments that were good for our side and there were a lot of comments that didn’t agree with our position. We didn’t censor any of it because we figured as long as they were commenting on the page it was spreading the word. Facebook turned out to be really valuable for us.”
Gumbo PAC used Philadelphia-based Shorr Johnson Magnus for TV ads and running lists for polling, in addition to hiring Des Moines-based GPS Impact for its digital and social platforms. While Edwards worked over the summer to raise his profile in state and convince national Democrats he could compete with Vitter, Gumbo PAC fought what Ourso described as a digital guerrilla war.
“We didn’t have a lot of money and Vitter was still way up there in the polls. We had to do things somewhat differently,” said Ourso. “We were really just trying to build up our online following so that once we cranked it up in the fall, we had a good base of people to talk to.”
The PAC poured more than 25 percent of its budget into digital during the primary. Once Edwards was successful and national resources started arriving, the focus shifted to television where the Democratic nominee was competing for airtime with the deep-pocked Vitter campaign and its allies. At least $30 million was spent by both sides.
What was helpful, Ourso said, was that the DGA partnered with the Gumbo PAC.
“They approached us right before the October primary, and I think that because of some of the other members of our team they felt comfortable with the work that we were doing and it made a lot more sense, particularly in this race, to run [resources] through a Louisiana-based group than to run that out of Washington,” he said.
Vitter had successfully fought a tough reelection campaign in 2010 in the wake of the prostitution scandal, but Ourso was convinced the issue was never fully exploited by Charlie Melancon, the Democratic Senate nominee that year. “You’ve got to remember during the Melancon race you had social media and all this digital stuff, but it was nowhere near what we do today. And people forget that that was the year we had the oil spill and the BP explosion and the Melancon campaign was suspended [for weeks]. “
Another big difference in the races, according to strategists, was that Louisiana voters have different expectations for their elected officials in D.C. versus the standards in Baton Rouge.
“In 2010, we made sure everyone was aware of Vitter's extracurricular activities,” recalled Kevin Franck, a former spokesman for the Louisiana Democrats. “What Jon Bel Edwards was able to do this time was connect what voters knew about Vitter's private life to their expectations of what kind of governor he would be. If he lied to his wife, he'll lie to you.”
Edwards and his allies successfully made the race about Vitter’s character instead of national issues. In fact, the campaign’s media consultant, Jared Arsement, is credited with producing the defining spot of the race that said Vitter had placed “prostitutes over patriots.”
“Once people understood that message, they lost confidence that [Vitter] shared their values and that they could trust him,” said Ourso. “All the ads that they were running against Edwards trying to link him to Obama or international issues really didn’t stick.
Edwards subsequent victory was historic given he defeated a candidate conventional wisdom said was a sure bet to be the next governor of Louisiana. Still, Ourso shied away from declaring a new dawn for Southern Democrats.
“I’m not ready to sit here and say this is a bellwether day for the South,” he said. “But I do think that it gives us hope that if you have a good candidate and stay disciplined and on message we can win races.”