Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is renowned for his policy wonkery and strict Catholicism, not a cutting sense of humor. So when he took the stage a few months ago at Washington’s annual Gridiron dinner, one jab stood out in particular. “The Menendez scandal is disturbing,” Jindal said, referring to reports (later proved untrue) that Senator Robert Menendez had paid for sex in the Dominican Republic. “Soliciting prostitution is completely unacceptable. We would never put up with that in Louisiana.”
The butt of the joke was obvious to everyone in the room. Six years earlier, Louisiana’s junior senator, David Vitter, confessed to “a very serious sin” when his name appeared in the call records of a large D.C. prostitution ring. His political career survived, but not everyone has been as forgiving as Louisiana voters. Jindal’s joke acknowledged what has become an open secret in Louisiana Republican circles: He and Vitter loathe each other.
“You have two teams, two tribes,” one longtime Louisiana political consultant explained. “If you’re not on team Jindal, you want to be on team Vitter.”
Neither Jindal nor Vitter’s offices would discuss their relationship on the record, and few bayou politicos wanted to attach their names to details of the tension between the two most powerful Republicans in their state. But Baton Rouge insiders use a few key euphemisms to characterize the relationship. Sometimes they say that the two men “won’t have a beer together”; other times, that they’re fighting a “cold war.” Occasionally they slip versions of both into the same quote: “It’s kind of a cold war between Vitter and Jindal. They respect each other, but they aren’t having any beers together, I’ll tell you that much,” a Vitter ally who worked on one of his early campaigns told me.
What makes their rivalry particularly noteworthy is that Vitter—who has been the butt of many more and much better jokes than Jindal’s—may now be more popular and influential in the Louisiana Republican Party. This doesn’t just testify to Vitter’s underrated political skills; it also pulls back the curtain on Jindal’s overrated ones. While Jindal was traveling the country, giving speeches on fixing the Republican Party and stoking presidential and vice presidential speculation, Vitter, who once seemed so isolated and politically vulnerable, was quietly and carefully courting influence in the state GOP.
Now, it’s Jindal who is isolated and vulnerable. His approval rating has plummeted after voters revolted against his handling of the state’s budget crisis. Other Republicans in Louisiana describe a governor so cut off from his party that he and his team operate “like a cult.”
Making matters worse, Jindal is term-limited as governor in 2015—and Vitter could be the candidate to replace him. If Jindal’s off-putting style has driven Louisiana Republicans into the arms of a man more famous for his personal peccadilloes than his legislative record, then just imagine what he’ll do for Marco Rubio or Chris Christie as a presidential candidate in 2016.
Most Louisiana politicos date the start of Jindal and Vitter’s contretemps to July 16, 2007, when Vitter called a press conference to fess up to his role in the D.C. madam scandal. It was the same afternoon that Jindal, then a member of Congress, kicked off his second bid for governor.
“I got the sense that every reporter in town was covering Vitter and not Jindal,” says Robert Mann, who worked as communications director for Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco, Jindal’s predecessor. While the rest of the Louisiana congressional delegation rushed to Vitter’s defense, Jindal—who represented Vitter’s old district—waited a day longer and said only: “While we are disappointed by Senator Vitter’s actions, [my wife] Supriya and I continue to keep David and his family in our prayers. This is a matter for the senator to address, and it is our hope that this is not used by others for their own political gain.”
Jindal was elected to the governor’s mansion later that year, while the national press excoriated Vitter. But Vitter had already begun laying the groundwork for his ascendance in his home state. In his days as a state legislator, he had successfully pushed for term limits for legislators, forcing many of the lawmakers he had served alongside to give up their seats in 2007. Vitter began recruiting conservative candidates to replace them and helped fund campaigns through the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority (LCRM), a PAC he had co-founded a couple years earlier. He also personally reached out to Democrats in conservative districts, encouraging them to get ahead of the state’s rightward turn.
The Louisiana legislature didn’t go red in 2007, but, thanks to a successful election cycle and a few high-profile Democratic defections, the House flipped in 2010. A year later, the state Senate followed suit. It was the first time Republicans controlled the legislature since Reconstruction. Scott Hobbs, a Louisiana-based political consultant, estimated that Vitter helped “at least sixty to seventy percent [of Republicans in the legislature] in some way” between 2007 and 2011. Now Baton Rouge is filled with Vitter-friendly pols, sometimes referred to as the “fiscal hawks.” They’ve made Jindal’s life a lot harder, attacking him for using accounting gimmicks to balance the state budget. Vitter has gotten in on the action too, castigating the governor for “kicking the can down the road—the sort of bad spending policy I’m constantly fighting in Washington.”
Vitter, in fact, has frequently questioned Jindal’s judgment. He vocally criticized Jindal’s handling of a high-profile fight between landowners and the oil and gas industry as “very counterproductive.” When Jindal backed a $1.2 billion teaching hospital in New Orleans, Vitter wrote to the secretary of Housing and Urban Development to ask that they reject the state’s application for federal loan insurance and joined forces with the state treasurer and House speaker to come up with their own, cheaper proposal. “That involvement and willingness to address policy issues kind of allowed his allies to rally around knowing there was another power center other than governor who would be supportive,” says one conservative activist involved with the state party.
Many observers of the state’s political scene believe that Vitter’s motivation, however principled, is also at least somewhat personal. In 2010, when Vitter was up for reelection against Democratic Representative Charlie Melancon, Jindal declined to endorse him—though he had traveled out of state to support other candidates. The following year, when Jindal was up for reelection, Vitter publicly endorsed him, but not without a note of passive aggression: Vitter said Louisiana needed a conservative legislature “[t]o help Bobby become as engaged and bold as possible in his second term.” Vitter’s official Twitter account then tweeted an article to his followers: “Gov. Bobby Jindal gets endorsement from senator he refused to endorse last year.”
Flack from Vitter and his allies, drastic cuts to schools and hospitals, and the impression that he cares more about his own political future than the state’s have cost Jindal dearly with Louisiana voters. Slightly over a year after he was reelected with two-thirds of the vote, his approval rating now sits at 38 percent. His stature with lawmakers is hardly better. In May, when The Lens, an investigative reporting outlet based in New Orleans, surveyed lawmakers in the capital about their relationships with the governor, they discovered that “no one in the Capitol can identify any friendships Jindal has developed among lawmakers.”
“He’s a victim of his own staff,” one conservative activist told me. “His own staff has overprotected him and created this Praetorian guard around him, and therefore he has not been able to engage enough, particularly with legislators and other politicians, and that I think has limited his effectiveness.”
“It’s really, really bad,” said another Louisiana Republican familiar with the relationship. “So essentially Vitter has stepped up to fill that void. Because everyone hates Bobby, David hates Bobby, and presto: The enemy of my enemy is a friend.”
Meanwhile, Vitter hasn’t announced his next move, but recent polls have him neck to neck with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to take Jindal’s job in 2015. That doesn’t mean he’ll waltz into the governor’s mansion. He still hasn’t faced serious criticism over the prostitution scandal, and some Republicans expect it’d be an issue in his run for governor. “It’s not that people haven’t forgiven Vitter. They have,” the Louisiana Republican told me. “But just because you’re there doesn’t mean people need to vote for you.”
Even if he doesn’t make his way to the governor’s mansion, he’s in line to become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee if Republicans retake the Senate next year—a hugely important committee assignment for Louisiana lawmakers. “No other politician has momentum like he has right now,” said Republican State Representative Lance Harris. “He caught lightning in a bottle.”
Jindal’s future is less clear. “We can all see he’s running for president,” said Mann. “But there’s also the sense that no one thinks that he’s got a chance. Everybody thinks that it’s a fool’s errand. So what does he do once he flames out?” I put that question to my sources, and a few of them mentioned a kind of presidency Jindal might be better suited for, one that would require less strenuous politicking: a think tank presidency.
Marin Cogan is a contributing writer at GQ.