BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter is trying to rally last-minute support from conservative voters in advance of Louisiana's Saturday runoff election for governor, a race that shows Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards leading in a state that usually marks an easy win for the GOP.
The competition has become a slugfest of attack ads and one of the most expensive governor's races in Louisiana history, with at least $30 million spent by candidates and outside groups.
When Vitter launched his campaign in January 2014, he immediately became the front-runner. He pulled in tremendous sums of campaign cash and relied on a dominant political machine that he's used to get himself and his allies regularly elected to Louisiana offices.
More recently, however, the race shifted to a referendum on Vitter, particularly his 2007 prostitution scandal, in which he apologized for a "serious sin" after he was linked through phone records to Washington's "D.C. Madam. He's also faced criticism for his campaign tactics, and he's been unable to unify GOP support. During the runoff campaign, Vitter has lagged in fundraising and polls.
Vitter supporters say the senator's been hampered by the unpopularity of term-limited Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who ended a presidential campaign this week. Those supporters cite the recent Kentucky governor's race, where Republican Matt Bevin won despite polls showing him lagging his Democratic opponent, to suggest Vitter will prevail in the end.
"I feel conservative support building every day," Vitter said.
Edwards, who began his gubernatorial bid as a little-known lawmaker from rural Tangipahoa Parish, responded to the spike in Vitter's disapproval ratings with a campaign built on personal integrity, a resume that includes a West Point degree and a tenure as an Army Ranger, and pledges that he'd run a moderate administration built on bipartisanship.
"This election is too critical. The stakes are too high. We cannot have someone who comes from a dysfunctional Washington political environment," Edwards said.
If elected, Edwards would be the first Democrat elected statewide since 2008 in a state that favors Republicans in those races.
Vitter has tried to tie Edwards to President Barack Obama, who is unpopular in the conservative state. This week, he's ramped up the effort, using the Paris terrorist attacks and the national debate over Syrian refugee resettlement to claim that Edwards would help Obama bring a flood of refugees to Louisiana, which received 14 so far, according to federal figures.
Both Vitter and Edwards have said Louisiana should block the refugees from entering the state, saying they pose a public safety risk. Edwards has responded to Vitter's claims by calling him a desperate liar, in a race where the two men don't hide their mutual disdain.
In the last debate ahead of the Saturday election, Edwards described Vitter as lacking a "moral compass" and called him a "hypocrite." Vitter said Edwards can't be trusted and would choose Obama over the people of Louisiana.
Vitter spent Friday traveling to events across south Louisiana. Edwards briefly attended a state legislative budget hearing, before heading out to rally volunteers for Saturday's get-out-the-vote efforts.
Attention on the race has intensified since the October primary, and based on an uptick in early voting for the runoff, Secretary of State Tom Schedler projects an increase in turnout from the primary, to about 42 percent of voters casting ballots.
Also on Saturday's ballot is an open race for lieutenant governor, between Democrat Kip Holden and Republican Billy Nungesser. Attorney General Buddy Caldwell is fighting to hang onto his seat in a fierce competition with fellow Republican Jeff Landry. Louisiana's open primary placed all candidates, regardless of party, on the ballot together, and the top two vote-getters headed to Saturday's runoff.
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