Louisiana's race for governor is set to end on November 21, one week after the Paris bombings. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the struggling Republican nominee, is trying to make the race turn on one issue: Whether to let Syrian refugees settle in the United States. His closing argument depends on making Democratic nominee John Bel Edwards, a state representative who responded cautiously to the refugee aspect of the crisis, into a refugee-hugging accomplice of President Obama.
The debate, and possibly the election, turns on one word choice -- the use of "accommodate" versus the use of "assist." After the Paris attacks, Edwards's campaign Facebook page published a statement promising to work with "federal authorities" in order to "both accommodate refugees who are fleeing from religious persecution and ensure that all our people are safe." As the pro-Vitter blog The Hayride noted, that wording changed after some angry reactions appeared on the Facebook thread. Soon, Edwards said he would work to "assist," not "accommodate" refugees. Then, in an e-mailed statement, Edwards was more definitive.
"In light of the recent tragedy in Paris, it's imperative for us to pause the influx of refugees flowing into our state without more information on the security measures in place," wrote Edwards. "Gov. Jindal has requested additional information from the President on how the federal government is handling the refugees being sent to Louisiana, and I think the President has an obligation to provide answers before we move any further."
That nuance did not convince Vitter's campaign. Yesterday he released a new ad that begins with video and sound of a bomb going off outside of the Stade de France soccer venue -- the first ad to directly bring the Paris terrorist attacks into domestic politics.
"Obama's sending Syrian refugees to Louisiana," says a narrator. "David Vitter warned Obama of the danger of Syrian refugees weeks ago, and promised as governor, no Syrian refugees will enter Louisiana. John Bel Edwards has promised to work with Obama to bring Syrian refugees to Louisiana."
The evidence for that claim is the first version of the Facebook ad. The evidence for Vitter's "warning" is a September 28 letter he sent to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, noting that the 9/11 hijackers were in the United States legally when they carried out their attacks. "I am concerned that under existing standards there is a limited ability to conduct the necessary oversight of those coming into the United States as refugees," he wrote then.
On the surface, there was not much difference between Edward's position and that of a pre-Paris Vitter -- or a post-Paris Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who is arguing for only Christian refugees to be settled in America. And the worries of refugees might be inflated by a false, viral meme that's popped up in Louisiana. According to New Orleans's WWL, up to "10,000" Syrian refugees were flooding the state. That overstated the real number by 9,984, and was illustrated by an image of Syrian refugees in Hungary, not Louisiana.
Vitter's campaign ad is not above spreading misleading information, either. It followed up the news of Edwards's Facebook post with a clip of the candidate saying "I supported the president." But the backdrop in that clip -- the phrase "2015 Louisiana gubernatorial debate" -- makes the source clear. It's from an October 1, 2015 candidate forum, more than six weeks before the Paris attacks. Edwards's admission that he "supported the president" was an answer to a question about who he backed in the 2012 election. That clip has been recycled in other oppo and ads, which up to now have failed to lift the scandal-plagued Vitter campaign.
If the refugees argument recalls 2014's fight over Ebola, and whether a travel ban was needed to protect Americans, Edwards's response recalls an effective Republican tactic from that cycle, when multiple Republican candidates wounded Democrats by arguing that they missed key meetings on the threat of ISIS.
"You missed three committee meetings when you could have done something about this," Edwards told Vitter in their final televised debate. "I answer the call. You don't show up for work. That's the difference between us."