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It wasn’t embroilment in an old prostitution scandal that derailed David Vitter’s campaign for the Louisiana governor’s mansion. It was a different legal issue.
Last February, the senator gave a speech to the oil and gas industry in Lake Charles where he declared that bringing Texas-style tort reform to Louisiana would be one of his top priorities as governor.
The plaintiff's bar was well aware of Vitter's disdain for trial lawyers prior to that speech. But hearing his public declaration prompted several leaders of the Louisiana trial bar to spring into action. They felt something had to be done to stop Vitter, so Gumbo PAC was born.
As the chief strategist for Gumbo PAC, I was part of the consulting team that used a blend of old-and-new school tactics, like highway billboards and TV ads together with geo-targeted pre-roll spots and talking mailers, to stop Vitter and prevent a complete Republican takeover of Louisiana.
Ultimately, many factors contributed to Vitter’s defeat. John Bel Edwards was a strong candidate and his team ran a disciplined campaign. The state Democratic Party had the financing it needed to orchestrate a full-scale GOTV operation. And Gumbo PAC created and fostered the Anybody-But-Vitter movement and then capitalized on an investment by the Democratic Governors Association.
Starting As a Long Shot
Last December, when three-term Republican Congressman Bill Cassidy sent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu into retirement, the Republican conquest of Louisiana was almost complete. They held every statewide office and five of its six congressional seats. The driving force behind the red wave that flowed through Louisiana's bayous was Sen. Vitter.
Through his Committee for a Republican Majority, Vitter spent a decade strategically inserting money and other resources into state legislative races to help the GOP gain majorities in both chambers. He handpicked candidates for Congress and helped get them elected, ensuring regional allies on the federal level. Above all, he plotted the ultimate demise of Landrieu, his longtime rival. After her defeat, the governor’s office was Vitter’s last prize.
Soon after Landrieu's defeat everything fell into place for the Republican. Vitter’s poll numbers were strong and his fundraising was even stronger. He raised $1.1 million in the first quarter. The Fund for Louisiana’s Future, his allied Super PAC, raked in an additional $680,000, giving it $3.5 million cash on hand to start the year. It was widely believed that his campaign and the Super PAC would have more money at their disposal than all of his opponents combined.
Vitter also didn't appear to have much to worry about in terms of opposition. The only Democrat in the race was Edwards, a state representative. His two Republicans rivals, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, were better-funded. But simple math prevented either man from getting enough votes to threaten the senator’s desired date with the little-known Democrat from the tiny town of Amite. Conventional wisdom had it that the Vitter-Edwards runoff would be a rout for the Republican.
Keeping the Spotlight On Vitter
As Edwards set about tying Angelle and Dardenne to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s unpopular administration, we started building up Gumbo PAC. Our strategy from the beginning was to keep the focus on Vitter and his past scandals. Our roux, the base of a sauce in creole terms, came from $150,000 in donations from just three individual attorneys.
We launched our digital presence with a web video produced by the PAC’s media consultants, Adam Magnus and Jay Howser of Shorr Johnson Magnus, that laid out our case against Vitter.
Next, we began working with our digital consultants, Roy Temple and Ryan Sinovic of GPS Impact, to strategically target that video into places that would get people talking. The legislature was in session so we used geo-targeting and dropped a pin on the state Capitol so Gumbo PAC’s new video was constantly beamed onto legislators’ computers while they were at work. We did the same for Vitter's regional offices around the state to properly introduce ourselves to the senator's staff. It earned some 12,000 views by the end of the race. Needless to say, Louisiana's political class was instantly engaged.
Gumbo PAC had three primary objectives for the spring and summer. The first was to build infrastructure that would effectively carry the anti-Vitter message if sufficient funding became available to have a meaningful impact on the outcome of the race. State-level Super PACs with the capacity to channel large amounts of money through a team of professionals simply don’t spring up over night.
The second objective was to tackle and erode the aura of inevitability surrounding Vitter's ascension to the governor's mansion. At the beginning of 2015, the political conversation in Louisiana didn't touch on whether Vitter would be elected governor. It simply revolved around the size of his margin of victory.
The final objective of Gumbo PAC was to resurrect the prostitution scandal that had plagued Vitter over the years with no apparent damage. It’s well documented that Vitter's name appeared on the call logs of the D.C. Madam. In fact, he’d apologized in 2007 for his "serious sin."
Still, Vitter coasted to reelection in 2010 in a race against Congressman Charlie Melancon. Some of us involved in that 2010 campaign felt the prostitution scandal was never properly litigated in that race and we were determined to not let that happen again.
Anybody But Vitter
Our most public show of defiance over the summer was a billboard along I-10 in New Orleans near the Superdome that declared: “ABV – Anybody But Vitter.” That one billboard created a buzz and inspired several news stories. It launched the ABV movement that would carry our message for the rest of the campaign. The team later joked that is was “the billboard heard round the world.”
At the end of the summer, we had to file a 90-day campaign finance report. During those lonely months of grinding away, we were only able to report about $12,000 had been raised. Even our most loyal supporters began to doubt that we would ever have a significant impact on the outcome of the election.
But in July and August, we saw polling data that indicated Vitter’s numbers were beginning to slide. His personal favorability, trustworthiness and honesty levels were eroding. More importantly, the press was beginning to talk about his prostitution scandal again. In September, there were several stories written that simply regurgitated the old news about the prostitutes.
Those pieces were the result of off-the-record meetings we had with reporters. From that point on, every story written about Vitter also included the words “prostitute scandal.” That was our opening.
Gumbo PAC also pushed those stories through Facebook with our newly created online community. We were reaching over 40,000 people per day. We used a combination of boosted posts and organic reach. From the beginning of the PAC we boosted our Facebook page and the posts we put on it every day for the entire campaign. For the most part, the boosts were at a relatively low monetary amount, but our goal was to just keep building that platform slowly throughout the summer. As each story was written, we became the conduit to spread it far and wide. As awareness grew, so did our donor base.
During the October primary, we were able to muster a modest TV buy of about $250,000. Our commercial played in only four of the state’s seven media markets. The commercial hit all the high points: tying Vitter to Jindal, his career in D.C. and the prostitution scandal. The tag was a crying baby in a diaper with the voiceover saying, “David Vitter: He’d be a crying shame for Louisiana.” A not-so-subtle reference to one aspect of Vitter’s prostitution scandal.
A Final Push
As Vitter continued to fade in the polls and Edwards continued to surge, the Democratic Governors Association took interest. They contacted us in early October seeking to partner with Gumbo PAC in the runoff if things continued to trend in the right direction. On Oct. 24, Edwards led the primary with 40 percent of the vote. Vitter limped in for the other runoff spot with an unimpressive 23 percent. Vitter was clearly wounded.
At this point, things began to move very quickly. We shared polling with the DGA that indicated Edwards was in a strong position to win the general election in November. A couple days after the primary, the DGA donated $300,000 to Gumbo PAC to help us make a TV buy for the first week of the runoff. We supplemented that with money we raised locally and made a buy of about $450,000 for that initial week of the runoff.
The first ad we produced in the runoff featured debate clips of Republicans Dardenne and Angelle calling Vitter “vicious,” "ineffective" and creating a "stench that is about to come over Louisiana."
The goal of that first commercial was basically to "freeze" the Angelle and Dardenne voters in their current posture of not voting for Vitter. We thought using the clips of their chosen candidates would be an effective way to do that. They had already voted for someone other than Vitter and we wanted to encourage as many of them as possible to repeat that exercise.
We then took the audio of the commercial and produced a talking mailer. The company that produces the shells for the talking mailers only had about 3,000, so we bought them all and targeted them at GOP officials, the news media and a small sliver of the electorate in East Baton Rouge and Lafayette Parishes. As expected, the mailer had the Republican insiders and the media talking. Joel DiGrado, who led the pro-Vitter PAC, described the micro-targeting of the talking mailer as "very high psychic warfare."
We followed the Dardenne and Angelle commercial with an ad featuring real Republicans speaking direct-to-camera about how they couldn’t vote for Vitter. We augmented that spot with a commercial featuring Republican Sheriff Newell Normand of Jefferson Parish explaining why he wasn't voting for Vitter. The Normand ad ran only in the New Orleans media market. Again, our goal was to give Republican-leaning voters "permission" to vote for the Democrat.
In total, Gumbo PAC spent just under $3 million on TV in the runoff — nearly $1.2 million in the final week alone. The DGA poured in $2.25 million of that total. Gumbo PAC bought about 4,000 GRP in each of the state's seven media markets except Shreveport, where Dardenne and Angelle performed worst
The television was complemented by three flights of anti-Vitter mail to about 90,000 households of Republican-leaning white women and a healthy dose of digital advertising. Our mail budget totaled $183,000. The digital advertising, like the TV and the mail, was targeted specifically at Dardenne and Angelle voters. We spent about $75,000 online in the final week of the campaign. Our total digital spend was around $117,000, including Facebook.
Polling throughout the runoff indicated that Edwards should win the election with a comfortable margin, but the Republican victory two weeks earlier in Kentucky (despite the polling) and the terrorist attacks in Paris a week before the vote made us all nervous. Vitter tried his best to use the Paris attacks and the Syrian refugee issue to his advantage. Gumbo PAC quickly came to Edwards' defense by producing a commercial highlighting the fact that Vitter missed two key meetings on Syria and said he didn't believe the situation in Syrian posed a threat to the United States or our allies. Vitter's last line of attack was snuffed out by his own negligence.
The suspense was over early on election night. As the early vote results trickled in, we knew right away that Vitter was going to lose an election for the first time in his career. Edwards was winning parishes that Vitter carried by 30 percent in 2010.
The final result was a resounding 56-44 percent victory for Edwards. In his concession speech, Vitter announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection to the Senate in 2016.
Trey Ourso is a partner at Ourso Beychok, Inc., a Baton Rouge-based Democratic mail firm.