Talk about Republican Sen. David Vitter's worst political nightmare — a surprise challenger with all the right conservative credentials and none of the baggage of the incumbent's prostitution scandal.
Chet Traylor, the first Republican elected to Louisiana's Supreme Court since Reconstruction, made a last-minute decision to take on Vitter after a fresh scandal for the first-term lawmaker: An aide had remained on Vitter's payroll after pleading guilty to charges stemming from a knife-wielding incident with an ex-girlfriend.
"In the weeks leading right up to the campaign, people just wanted an alternative," said Traylor, 64, an Army veteran and former state trooper who later became a lawyer and a judge.
Traylor said conservative Republicans — he didn't name them — begged him to enter the race, fearing that Vitter, hobbled by scandals old and new, could lose to a Democrat in the general election.
Still, Vitter has the incumbent's edge, in the Aug. 28 primary and in November, when he'll likely face Democrat Charlie Melancon and a handful of independent and minor party candidates. He has more than $5 million in campaign cash and a double-digit lead in recent polls over Melancon, who has about half that amount.
State GOP chairman Roger Villere still backs Vitter, a 49-year-old attorney, Rhodes Scholar and the state's first Republican senator in modern times. Other state Republicans also are standing with the incumbent.
Traylor has only started raising money and building name recognition even though he won election in a sprawling Supreme Court district in north Louisiana.
"I would like to find out more information about his background," said Connie Beach, a Republican from Folsom in south Louisiana, who added that "the right person" might be able to defeat Vitter in the primary.
Lev Dawson believes Vitter is vulnerable. Dawson is a conservative north Louisiana farmer and businessman and a frequent contributor to past Republican campaigns, including Vitter's. But now he is managing Traylor's fledgling campaign and says Republicans who want Traylor to run believe the latest scandal isn't the last.
"Is there more coming? We think there might be. And if there's more coming, how bad is it? And what will happen to the women's vote in Louisiana, and will he survive it?" said Dawson. "We think if Justice Traylor gets the nomination, he'll win."
Others were more skeptical of Traylor's chances.
"Right now, at this time, I don't see that happening," Cathy White, a New Orleans Republican said, when asked if Traylor could win. White, president of a 73-member Republican women's group, said members of the group like Vitter's opposition to President Barack Obama's policies.
Vitter has focused his attention on Melancon, repeatedly calling him a rubber stamp for Obama's initiatives even though the conservative congressman often breaks with his party. Vitter attracted attention this past week when he expressed support for conservative organizations challenging Obama's citizenship in court. So-called birthers have challenged Obama's standing as president by arguing that he was not born in the United States. Hawaii officials have repeatedly confirmed the president's citizenship.
The incumbent has responded to Traylor's entry into the race in much the same way he handled the prostitution scandal, by keeping quiet about it. His campaign declined to comment for this story.
In 2007, Vitter would confess only to a "serious sin" after his phone number turned up among records for a Washington prostitution ring. He tersely denied later accusations that he was a customer of New Orleans prostitutes and again declined to answer questions.
More recently, he abruptly walked away from reporters, saying little in response to repeated questions about Brent Furer, an aide who pleaded guilty in 2008 to charges stemming from a knife-wielding altercation with an ex-girlfriend. Furer, who handled women's issues for the senator, later pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges, including threatening harm and destruction of property.
Vitter spokesman Joel DiGrado said Vitter's office was aware of the 2008 incident, and that the aide left the office for several months as the court adjudicated the case, ordering a fine and community service. But Furer didn't leave Vitter's employ until he resigned last month, after an ABC News report detailed the 2008 incident. At the time, DiGrado said Vitter accepted Furer's resignation after learning of other legal issues, including an unresolved driving while intoxicated case.
Vitter's office has refused to address questions about Furer. But a retired Marine general, James E. Livingston, is defending the senator and Furer.
In a letter to ABC News, later released to the media, Livingston said Furer was a veteran of Operation Desert Storm who had seen horrific wartime action, including the deaths of comrades.
"When faced with Brent's troubles, Senator Vitter could have chosen political expediency and allowed Brent to flounder on his own in a time of need. Instead, he tried to allow Brent the best opportunity to seek help and get better while never downplaying the severity of the charges — of which assault was dismissed," Livingston wrote.
Walter Abbott, a north Louisiana Republican activist, said Traylor's candidacy won't stop Vitter, nor will it make him more vulnerable to Melancon's challenge.
"A year after this election it's going to be: `Traylor? Traylor. Oh, yeah! Wasn't he on the Supreme Court at one time?" Abbott predicted.
But Traylor insists he can topple Vitter.
"If he were in good shape," Traylor said, "people wouldn't be calling me."
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