NEW ORLEANS — With a victory that defied political geography and near universal predictions from just months earlier, a previously little-known Democrat, State Representative John Bel Edwards, soundly defeated United States Senator David Vitter in a runoff election on Saturday to become the next governor of Louisiana.
Mr. Edwards won 56 percent of the vote with virtually all of the ballots counted.
A more promising red state Democrat could hardly have been found than Mr. Edwards, a Catholic social conservative from a family of rural law enforcement officers who graduated from West Point and served eight years of active duty in the Army.
Mr. Vitter, for his part, was a problematic candidate for Republicans, even though he had been widely seen as the favorite for months. A prostitution scandal from 2007, the baggage of an unpopular Republican incumbent, Gov. Bobby Jindal, and a series of state political foes with long memories dragged Mr. Vitter down before an Oct. 24 primary. He never recovered.
Not only did he lose this race but Mr. Vitter told supporters Saturday night that he would not run for re-election to the Senate in 2016. Republican strategists in Washington had expressed reluctance to put money behind him, preferring a candidate who would be an easier sell in a tricky election year for Senate Republicans. A line of Republicans interested in the seat has already formed.
In a state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2008, and in a part of the country where Democratic campaigns for governor are mostly suicide missions, a Republican was assumed to have an easy path to victory. Mr. Vitter was thought to be that Republican, given his overwhelming fund-raising advantage, unquestioned conservative reputation and proven skill at crushing challengers.
But last month’s nonpartisan primary, among Mr. Edwards, Mr. Vitter and two other Republicans, began to sizzle in its closing weeks. Mr. Vitter attacked the other Republicans as free-spending liberals while they labeled Mr. Vitter “vicious” and “a liar,” bringing up the prostitution scandal in debates. Something of an “Anybody but Vitter” movement began to form, powered in part by two “super PACs” formed expressly to seek his defeat.
Still, it was in the last days before the primary that the carnival tradition of Louisiana politics began to truly assert itself.
An investigative blogger published an interview with a former escort who claimed to have carried on a yearslong affair with Mr. Vitter. Soon after, a private investigator working for the Vitter campaign was arrested after surreptitiously filming a group of men at a cafe outside New Orleans — a gathering that included another private investigator, one who had tracked down the escort in the online video.
Mr. Vitter, 54, limped into Saturday’s runoff after finishing far behind Mr. Edwards, 49, in the primary, and became the standard-bearer for a Republican Party splintered by infighting.
In the weeks between the two elections, Mr. Vitter tried various tactics against Mr. Edwards: warnings that he was an “Obama liberal” in Blue Dog clothing; provocative attack ads accusing him of wanting to release “thugs” from prison or of being dangerously uncommitted to keeping out Syrian refugees; and personal ads in which Mr. Vitter obliquely addressed the prostitution scandal by saying he had been forgiven by his family.
Mr. Edwards, in turn, tried to keep the focus away from party or ideology and on his military background, Mr. Vitter’s scandal and the increasingly unpopular Mr. Jindal, who after two terms was barred by term limits from seeking re-election.
In his victory speech, Mr. Edwards alluded to the nasty campaign, saying that Louisianans had “chosen hope over scorn, over negativity and over the distrust of others” He pledged to work with Mr. Vitter during his remaining time in the Senate and to “work together regardless of party” — something he will be forced to do with a Republican-controlled Legislature.
Still, Mr. Edwards returned to a theme he had emphasized in contrasting himself with his opponent. “I will always be honest,” he said. “I will never embarrass you. I will get up every day fighting to put the people of Louisiana first.”
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