David Vitter, political survivor

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) will run for governor in 2015. The early read is that he stands a pretty decent (if not better) chance of winning.

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

That's pretty remarkable. In 2007, Vitter was an embattled senator apologizing in public after his number appeared in the telephone records of the "D.C. Madam."

So how did he survive the cloud of a prostitution scandal where other have failed? A combination of luck and skill.

On the luck side, timing had a lot to do with it. The Post's Paul Kane took a deeper dive into Vitter's career arc last year. As Kane reported, the fact that 1) Vitter didn't have to go before voters until years after the "D.C. Madam" revelation and 2) The year he did was a banner one for Republicans fueled by deep unhappiness with President Obama helped him a keep a job that may well have slipped away under less favorable circumstances.

Vitter did his part to keep a low profile as he worked his way back and cooperated with Democrats once he was. Plus, it certainly didn't hurt that charges never materialized. From Kane's story:

Vitter also kept his head down. He worked to rehabilitate his image back home in one of the smartest or luckiest (perhaps both) twists of political fate in recent years. He was never criminally charged. The Senate Ethics Committee, chaired by Boxer, dismissed the case, finding that whatever the conduct was, it occurred “before your Senate candidacy” in 2004 and “did not involve use of public office.”

Few Democrats will openly forgive Vitter’s alleged actions — he never spelled out what precisely occurred with the madam’s clients — but they say they have found in the reengaged senator someone who is willing to work across the aisle on some issues.

Vitter has long been rumored as a candidate for governor. So his announcement Tuesday that he will run is not a surprise. It comes as he has not only strong name recognition from his years as a statewide officeholder; he's popular, too.

One recent poll showed Vitter with high approval ratings and a lead on the potential 2015 field, topping two other statewide officials, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (R) and  Treasurer John Kennedy (R). Another one also showed him at the top of the heap.

There's no one recipe for dealing with scandal. Every case is unique. But what Vitter's survival shows is that time is often a scandal-plagued pol's best friend. And what an incumbent does with the time before voters get to pass judgement on them at the ballot box can prove to be critical.

It's possible the "D.C. Madam" story could surface again in Vitter's campaign for governor. Opponents might be tempted to raise the issue in a heated race. But such kinds of attacks probably won't have anywhere near the potency they would have had in the immediate wake of the scandal.

Vitter said in his announcement that governor would be his last political office. Under different circumstances, his career in politics might have ended years ago.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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