BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter survived challenges Saturday from two GOP rivals who called his years-old prostitution scandal a stain on Louisiana, reaching a runoff against Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards in the governor's race.
The Nov. 21 runoff will decide who follows Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Bobby Jindal into office, the winner inheriting leadership of a state mired in financial problems that both candidates blame on the term-limited governor. Jindal is now waging a long-shot campaign for the presidential nomination.
While Edwards always seemed assured of a runoff spot, Vitter bested two other major Republicans to secure his position on the November ballot, eclipsing Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.
And the race was tighter than Vitter had hoped, with Edwards taking 40 percent of the primary vote and Vitter advancing with 23 percent, according to unofficial returns.
Months ago, Vitter was atop the polls, flush with millions in campaign cash and running like an incumbent. But amid continued talk of his 2007 prostitution scandal and a drumbeat of criticism about his attack-heavy campaign tactics, Vitter's negatives spiked among voters. One PAC has been running an "Anybody But Vitter" campaign.
Vitter, however, maintained a strong conservative base that propelled him into the runoff.
The two runoff contenders immediately took swipes at each other, suggesting the themes voters can expect next.
Speaking to supporters, Vitter struck at Edwards for his support of President Barack Obama and criticized him as a liberal who is out of step with Louisiana: "Voting for John Bel Edwards would be the same as voting to make Barack Obama governor of Louisiana."
Edwards told his backers that Vitter would continue the policies of Jindal, whose approval ratings are even lower than Obama's in the conservative state.
"We cannot afford a third Jindal term. That is what David Vitter offers you," Edwards said.
Four statewide incumbents, all Republicans, cruised to re-election in their races: Secretary of State Tom Schedler, Treasurer John Kennedy, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon and Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain. GOP Attorney General Buddy Caldwell will continue to fight to hang onto his seat in the November runoff, with strong competition from Republican former congressman Jeff Landry.
With Dardenne making a failed bid for governor, the lieutenant governor's race headed to a runoff between Republican Billy Nungesser, former president of Plaquemines Parish, and Democrat Kip Holden, mayor of Baton Rouge.
A runoff is held if no candidate tops 50 percent of the vote.
An Ivy League-educated Rhodes Scholar from the New Orleans suburbs, Vitter returned to a campaign style that has worked for him in previous races. He ran on conservative values and described himself as a political outsider.
He and a super PAC supporting him attacked his GOP competitors as tax-and-spend liberals, suggested Dardenne wasted tax dollars in office and criticized Angelle for resigning as state natural resources secretary only days after a massive sinkhole opened on his watch.
"Baton Rouge is broken and dysfunctional, and there are no adult leaders there taking on the big challenges," Vitter said in one of only two TV debates he attended.
With few policy differences, the race largely came down to personalities — and a referendum of sorts on whether Vitter's eight-year-old prostitution scandal still resonated with voters. The senator apologized in 2007 for a "very serious sin" after he was linked through phone records to Washington's "D.C. Madam."
"We are better than this. We can avoid the disappointment, the embarrassment, the ridicule, the shame," Dardenne, a former state lawmaker from Baton Rouge, said in an ad that ran on Election Day.
Dardenne ran a campaign suggesting he would be a reform governor who would "make Louisiana proud." Angelle, a French-speaking native of Breaux Bridge with a thick Cajun accent, positioned himself as the conservative candidate — without a prostitution scandal.
Vitter has dodged talk of the scandal, suggesting he and the voters have moved on.
While his three GOP opponents struck at each other, Edwards saved most of his criticism for Jindal, whom Edwards blamed for causing state finances to crater.
"I stood up to Bobby Jindal and his disastrous policies," Edwards, a state House Democratic leader from Tangipahoa Parish, said in his campaign.
Edwards campaigned as a conservative Democrat. He's pro-gun and anti-abortion, and comes from a family of sheriffs. He also has a West Point degree and military background.
At least $21 million has been spent so far by candidates and super PACs on the race.
The men largely shared similar positions on repairing Louisiana's financial crisis and balancing the budget. They supported a rewrite of the state's tax structure to scale back spending on tax breaks and a lessening of budget protections that leave colleges at most risk for cuts.