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How Bobby Jindal (and Grover Norquist) Doomed David Vitter

And helped elect a Democratic governor of Louisiana.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When Bobby Jindal bowed out of the 2016 presidential race last week, he seemed determined to drag his long-time foe, Senator David Vitter, down with him. The two Louisiana Republicans have bitterly feuded with each other for years, both out of personal animus and for supremacy in the state party, and that rivalry has now concluded with both of their political careers in shambles. 

Last Tuesday, just four days before Vitter’s run-off election for governor—a job the senator has long covetedJindal announced his withdrawal from the 2016 field, diverting the Louisiana media’s attention from Vitter’s last-ditch attempts to overcome his polling deficit by rabble-rousing about keeping Syrian refugees out of Louisiana. The Jindal news was also an untimely reminder to voters of just how deeply they loathe their current Republican governor. On Saturday, Vitter lost by a 12-point margin to Democrat John Bel Edwards, then announced he wouldn’t be running for re-election next year to the Senate, either. 

The last-minute distraction was just one of the many ways that Jindal helped to doom Vitter’s campaign for governor—which was, at first, so widely expected to succeed that some Louisiana Democrats didn’t want the party to put up a candidate at all. Despite the 2007 prostitution scandal in which Vitter was found on the phone records of the so-called “D.C. Madam,” he’d cruised to victory in his 2010 Senate race, seeming to render his “very serious sin” irrelevant; he had loads of funding and widespread name recognition his opponents lacked. This race was also supposed to be unwinnable for Louisiana Democrats, who came up woefully short of re-electing Senator Mary Landrieu a year ago and have been generally left for dead. 

But Vitter struggled to survive the hard hits of two serious Republican challengers in the primary (including one Jindal protege) and limped into the runoff with a wide array of political vulnerabilities. His Democrat opponent was a pro-gun, anti-choice West Point grad and state legislator who released a brutal ad over the prostitution scandal. Vitter was so loathed by some factions of the Louisiana GOP for his sharp-elbowed efforts to become the state party’s kingmaker that one of his GOP primary opponents, Jay Dardenne, went so far as to endorse Edwards. But Vitter’s biggest liabilities lay with Jindal’s own failures—not as a presidential candidate, but as a two-term governor. Jindal made the “R” beside Vitter’s name on the ballot a handicap rather than a help, even in a deeply red state. 

Jindal has been massively unpopular as governor, with a current job-approval rating of just 20 percent. That’s in large part because his governance was an economic disaster. He and the GOP-controlled legislature dragged Louisiana into a budget crisis of massive proportions: The state is currently facing a $500 million shortfall, and that gap is expected to balloon to $1 billion next year. Some of the state’s woes could be chalked up to bigger structural forces: The recession hit just as post-Hurricane Katrina aid was being phased out; more recently, the plummeting price of oil has devastated Louisiana’s energy sector. But Jindal exacerbated the fiscal crisis by refusing to raise taxes and pushing through tax cuts and huge corporate tax giveaways that shrank government revenues just as state needed them the most in a faltering economy. Corporate tax exemptions have doubled from $1 billion to $2 billion since Jindal took office, according to an analysis by The Advocate. That includes a huge giveaway to Hollywood studios, in which taxpayers pay for 30% of the cost of movies made in the state—including the whopping salaries paid to actors. 

To make up the budget gap, Jindal relied increasingly on budget gimmicks and one-time fixes to fill the hole, which became a huge focus of Edwards’ campaign to pitch himself as the anti-Jindal. Edwards pitched himself as the anti-Jindal. “He has not been honest with the people of Louisiana in terms of his own budgeting,” Edwards said. “He talks about the budget in ways that are just demonstrably false.”

Jindal’s presidential aspirations kept him from doing anything to address the state’s fiscal crisis. He swore to abide by Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, even as it became clear that the anti-tax orthodoxy was destroying the state’s budget. “It was almost 100% his national ambitions,” says Robert Mann, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and long-term Louisiana political observer. “The price he paid in Louisiana was having a 20% approval rating.” In reality, many of the state’s Republicans didn’t subscribe to Norquist’s rigid ideology on taxes. And in this year’s legislative session, Jindal finally agreed to tap the brakes on the massive tax giveaways, signing a bill in June that puts a $180 million cap on film tax credits. 

But the departing governor remained in thrall to Norquist as he kicked off his presidential campaign: Jindal created a ludicrous budget gimmick—creating a new fee on college students that would never be collected, offset by a tax credit that could be counted as raising revenue—in order to close the fiscal gap without appearing to raise taxes. Republicans in the legislature described the move as “nonsense” and “stinky, yucky stuff.” The hit at higher education stung even more because Jindal has pushed through a whopping 53% cut to public colleges and universities between 2008 and 2014, according to the Advocate

I wouldn’t want sharia law to govern Louisiana. Nor would I want Grover Norquist,” the Louisiana-based consultant James Carville declared. He wasn’t alone. The irony is that Jindal’s fealty to Norquist did nothing to help him with the Republican base anyway in the presidential race. The budget mess in Louisiana undermined Jindal’s reputation as a policy wonk. Before he dropped out of the race, his national poll numbers were hovering around 1 percent

But he did have an impact on one campaign—Vitter’s. The senator tried valiantly to distance himself from Jindal, declaring that he was running against “Baton Rouge politicians that have failed us.” But that only encouraged the Republican establishment to turn against him, and anti-Vitter Republicans were unabashed about tying Vitter to the deeply unpopular governor. “The Republican brand has been damaged by the failed leadership of Bobby Jindal in his second term,” said Dardenne, his former GOP primary opponent, when he announced that he was endorsing Edwards. “A David Vitter governorship will further damage our brand, as I and others have pointed out during the campaign.” 

It didn’t help Vitter that he, too, had signed Norquist’s no-tax pledge as a senator, though he insisted that he would “make fiscal decisions that are best for Louisiana, not based on what a Washington group dictates.” In fact, Vitter and his Democratic vanquisher “generally weren’t that far apart” when it came to fiscal issues, says Mann. Both Vitter and Edwards promised to curb huge tax giveaways, but provided few details about the tax exemptions they would get rid of, and both opposed income-tax increases. But Edwards was buoyed by his long-standing opposition to Jindal and Vitter: Edwards opposed Jindal’s big higher-education cuts and his refusal to expand Medicaid—one of the biggest changes that he’s expected to bring up when he takes office. 

In Kentucky last month, Republican Matt Bevin’s Obamacare opposition was credited with lifting him to victory. In Louisiana, voters rejected the party that had turned down Medicaid expansion. Unlike Bevin, Vitter didn’t campaign against the expansion, insisting that he was open to some version of the option even as he opposed Obamacare. That position seems to be gaining traction in the Deep South, where residents have the most to benefit from the Medicaid expansion; Alabama’s GOP governor recently suggested that he was considering it as well. 

But finely grained policy distinctions on Medicaid weren’t the focus of a campaign dominated by sensationalism, partisan back-stabbing, and strong emotions. Edwards ultimately prevailed by successfully combining Vitter’s ugly personal scandal with the equally ugly feelings that the vast majority of Louisiana residents had toward their incumbent governor. “It’s easy for all of these Republican candidates to criticize Bobby Jindal now with his popularity rate at 30 percent or below,” Edwards said. “I stood against him when his approval rating was 70 percent or above.”

Jindal took one last opportunity to thumb his nose at Vitter after the election results came in on Saturday, issuing an unusually warm statement congratulating his soon-to-be Democratic successor on an “impressive victory.” But in one sense, he hasn’t done Edwards any great favors, given the fiscal mess that the incoming governor will be facing while Jindal and Vitter both exit the stage.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the original text stated that Mary Landrieu was defeated two years ago. She was defeated one year ago.