The last-minute primary challenger to Louisiana Sen. David Vitter told ABC News he entered the race because of what he describes as a groundswell of concern among Republicans that Vitter may be too damaged by scandal to survive the general election.
"I got so many phone calls in the last week or two, they wanted another option," said Chet Traylor, a retired state supreme court justice who has just launched his first statewide campaign. "They want, and I want Louisiana to have, a Republican senator."
Traylor said Republicans he spoke with were specifically concerned about the recent reports surrounding Vitter's longtime aide, Brent Furer. As first reported by ABC News, Furer had a history of trouble with law enforcement -- including arrests for cocaine possession and drunk driving – and in 2008 was charged with assaulting a female friend with a knife, holding her hostage for 90 minutes, and threatening to kill her. After the episode, Furer continued to serve in Vitter's senate office and was listed in congressional guides as the senator's point man on women's issues.
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"That was a concern for a lot of people," Traylor said. "And certainly to women. I don't believe you put someone in charge of women's affairs who's had the kind of problems he's got."
Traylor, 64, is one of 16 people who filed to challenge Vitter, but prior to his entry Vitter did not face an opponent with significant name recognition and clout within the state party. Traylor is a self-described conservative who served for a decade on the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Public polling has shown Vitter with a strong lead in a match up against Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon. Some Republicans in Louisiana, however, have been skittish about the potential for a scandal to present an unexpected obstacle to Vitter's reelection chances. In 2007, Vitter was identified as a client of the so-called D.C. Madam, and the senator was forced to make an anguished public apology. In April, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, speaking on the ABC News show "Topline," ruled out a bid to challenge Vitter. But Perkins, a leading social conservative, also indicated there would be little patience for any further transgressions.
"He had a very public confession over what he did. He has both publicly and privately assured me that he is on another path. He realizes what he did was wrong, and I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt, one time," Perkins said.
Furer resigned after the initial ABC News report. For several days following the resignation, Vitter avoided reporters' questions about the incident. Last week, when he filed his papers to formally announce his reelection bid, Vitter made his first public comments about the case, saying it had been "misrepresented" and "misreported," and specifically refuting reports that Furer had been placed in charge of women's issues. When reporters sought an explanation for how, exactly, he sanctioned Furer for his arrest and conviction on three lesser charges, Vitter responded, "Next question."
Senate payroll records show Furer's pay was suspended for five days around the time of the altercation. Furer ultimately pled guilty to three lesser charges in connection with the attack, after which the charge of assault was dropped.
ABC News sent an email to Vitter's senate office seeking further explanation for the senator's assertion that Furer was never assigned to women's issues, but it went unanswered.
There remains strong evidence that Furer was assigned to women's issues. Beyond the listings in congressional handbooks, Beth Meeks, the executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told ABC News that when she traveled to Washington to meet with Vitter earlier this year, the senator had assigned Furer to meet with her. Late last week, Sue Else, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, also remembered Furer as the contact Vitter's Washington office provided on women's issues.
"We know first-hand that Brent Furer, a perpetrator of domestic violence, worked on women's issues in Senator Vitter's office," Else said in a statement.
The flap over Furer's role in Vitter's office has led to rebukes from several women's groups. The National Organization for Women called for Vitter to be censured by the U.S. Senate. Rita Smith, Executive Director of The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, released a statement late last week criticizing the senator for not acting sooner.
"To keep him, and assign him to cover women's issues as part of his responsibilities in that office, shows the Senator has a concerning lack of support and understanding of violence against women issues," Smith said.