The senator from Louisiana pulled off what ended up being a minor miracle by finishing in second place in Saturday’s primary election for governor of the Bayou State, putting him in a two-way runoff. He was the odds-on favorite at the start of the campaign cycle but watched his lead slowly fade after a summer plagued by the ghosts of his past.
One ghost in particular has cast quite the shadow: a woman named Wendy Ellis.
Ellis alleges that Vitter—a kind of dorky dad-figure who would fit perfectly in a Tim Allen sitcom role—paid her for sex for years in New Orleans in the late 1990s. This story was exposed in a series of interviews by American Zombie, a muckraking outfit led by New Orleans journalist Jason Berry (not the investigative reporter of the same name who contributes to The Daily Beast). Before those conversations, Ellis had made similar claims in Hustler magazine in 2007 and Vitter’s name was found on the call logs of the “DC Madam” service.
People tried to stack the odds against Vitter long before the latest salacious story. Over the summer, a super PAC known as Gumbo (it is Louisiana of course) organized a campaign called Anybody But Vitter. They put billboards along highways emblazoned with a huge “ABV” and a link to the site.
Then the Ellis interview dropped.
During the hourlong Oct. 13 interview with American Zombie, she added to the complicated situation claiming that she was terminally ill with lupus, which was compelling her to speak now while she still has the chance. Additionally, what was deemed as more of a bombshell was her claim that she and Vitter conceived a child during their three-year relationship between 1998 and 2000 and that she gave the baby up for adoption despite Vitter’s urges that she get an abortion.
In 2007, Vitter apologized for a non-specific “serious sin,” alleging he had settled the issue (as best as one can) with his wife.
“This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible,” Vitter said at the time. “Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling. Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there—with God and them. But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way.”
So it has been generally accepted that at the very least Vitter solicited Ellis as a prostitute, but the new details of a child being involved haven’t been confirmed and were approached with trepidation by journalists and observers alike.
Besides his opponents, of course, who used it as a launchpad to hurl new attacks at the man who could be governor.
Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, who happens to also be one of Vitter’s Republican primary opponents, encouraged voters to watch the interview with Ellis during the final gubernatorial debate last week.
“We have a stench that is getting ready to come over Louisiana, if we elect David Vitter as governor,” Angelle said. “There is a shadow that has been cast over Sen. Vitter, a shadow that if it continues, will follow Louisiana.”
After the debate, Angelle was less certain that Ellis’s story was completely true, saying, “I don’t know what to believe. [The videos] are concerning.”
He was the first candidate in the race to directly attack Vitter for his controversial past, while others have made implicit jabs along the way. Angelle’s campaign has not returned a request for comment for this story and neither has the Republican Party of Louisiana. The Daily Beast corresponded with Vitter’s spokesman Luke Bolar via email and he has not returned a phone call from this morning. “It’s a hatchet job,” he emailed today referencing the piece. “Even other liberal blogs have discredited the whole story.”
That was by no means the end of Vitter’s troubles.
On Friday, his shadowy campaign became all the more confusing. A private investigator conducting opposition research for the senator was arrested in a suburb of New Orleans after allegedly videotaping a meeting between a Republican state senator and Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand.
During this perplexingly public summit of local leaders—at a café called the Royal Blend—Normand, the state senator, an attorney, a private investigator, and a former New Orleans police officer said they looked up from their piping hot cups of joe to see a man recording them with a “spy camera” meant to look like a cellphone.
Normand confronted the individual, who turned out to be Robert J. Frenzel, part of an investigative firm hired by Vitter for opposition research, Frenzel promptly took off out of the café and ran away through a bunch of backyards. He was found hiding behind an air-conditioning unit (presumably still holding on to his secret little camera) and was charged with criminal mischief, which has never been so aptly applied to any situation in the history of ever.
And then the plot only got thicker.
The sheriff’s office got a warrant to search Frenzel’s car. Officials said they saw through the windshield that he had materials related to Berry, the very individual responsible for exposing the story about Ellis and Vitter.
“I don’t know what the guy was after,” Normand said. “Obviously he was fairly amateurish.”
The Vitter campaign later confirmed that Frenzel was on their payroll but said he hadn’t done anything illegal.
After all the dust settles—if it ever does—Vitter will go to a runoff against John Bel Edwards, a Democratic state representative, on Nov. 21. And the craziest part is that Vitter is kind of still a frontrunner.
There is no Democrat holding statewide office in Louisiana. So maybe a prostitute, a potential love child, a spy camera, and a moron opposition researcher are not enough to bring David Vitter down.
If they can’t, nothing will.
Updated 11:45 a.m. Oct. 26 to add comments from Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar.