Vitter’s Runoff Election Hail Mary Strategy: Syrian Refugee Fear-Mongering

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Sen. David Vitter’s (R-LA) underdog gubernatorial campaign latched on to growing anti-Syrian refugee sentiment in the final days before Saturday’s runoff election.

But in the process, Vitter tapped into rampant paranoia about a “missing” refugee that led to threats being made against a Catholic charity organization in charge of resettling Syrians in Louisiana—one that has a connection to his own wife.

“We have a case from Baton Rouge, a case that’s pretty close to home,” Vitter said Thursday, as quoted by BuzzFeed News. “A Syrian refugee that settled here last week, is gone. Allegedly traveling to Washington, D.C., I guess. No one really knows.”

The senator said that he’d been briefed on the situation regarding the refugee, who he said hadn’t checked in with federal authorities, according to BuzzFeed. He added that the example of the “missing” refugee showed the “wildly irresponsible nature” of the resettlement program.

Vitter’s account of the “missing” refugee was at odds with information disseminated by state authorities, however.

The Louisiana State Police sought to separate out fact from fiction for residents in a Facebook post Thursday “after rumors and misinformation began to run rampant and fear began to spread” about the state’s refugee resettlement program. State Police Col. Mike Edmonson wrote that he had spoken personally with a representative from Baton Rouge’s chapter of Catholic Charities, which works with the State Department to place refugees in Louisiana.

“We quickly learned that the refugee placed in Baton Rouge was relocated through official channels to the Washington D.C. area,” Edmonson wrote.

Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge reported receiving a gun threat earlier this week as the rumors about the “missing” refugee picked up steam. Edmonson wrote in the Facebook post that police “were able through investigative means to identify and interview the person who made the threat.”

The Baton Rouge refugee was one of just 14 Syrians confirmed by the State Department to have relocated to Louisiana since Jan. 1, according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Officials with Catholic Charities told The Baton Rouge Advocate that the refugee, who records show arrived in the U.S. between June and July, stayed in the city for just a few days before traveling to Washington, D.C. to be with family. The man submitted the required paperwork to the federal government before relocating, the officials said.

Misinformation about the refugee drew a rebuke from Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, a Vitter opponent who played a bit part earlier in the gubernatorial race when he caught a private investigator hired by the senator’s campaign recording his breakfast meeting with other political power players.

Normand expressed concern about an email from the Louisiana Republican Party about the “missing” refugee, in a phone conversation with the alternative weekly newspaper The Gambit, adding: “Somebody’s going to get killed.” The GOP email noted, “David Vitter had to notify the Obama Administration that a Syrian refugee who had been living in Baton Rouge has gone missing.”

Vitter repeated incorrect information about the “missing” refugee this week even though his wife, Wendy, serves as the general counsel for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which oversees Catholic Charities. Wendy Vitter distanced herself from the refugee resettlement program while stumping for her husband on Thursday.

“Catholic Charities obviously is a catholic mission service that serves ministry to people in need but not even Catholic Charities, they don’t make the policy,” she said at an event in Lake Charles, Louisiana, as quoted by local TV station KLPC. “They are administering a policy of the Obama administration. It’s President Barack Obama’s policy. It is not Catholic Charities policy and I can guarantee it’s not Wendy Vitter’s policy.”

David Vitter has gone all-in on the Syrian refugee debate this week, beginning with a TV ad he released Monday that sought to tie his opponent John Bel Edwards (D) to President Barack Obama’s policy on admitting Syrian refugees to the U.S. The ad opened with the sound of explosions caused by suicide bombers outside the Stade de France and included several clips of news coverage from the terror attacks last week in Paris.

In addition to the debunked account of the “missing” refugee, he’s also pushed a misleading narrative about Syrian refugees being caught trying to sneak into the U.S. through Mexico. A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson told TPM on Thursday that the Syrian families in question actually presented themselves at a port of entry in Laredo, Texas.

Vitter, who’s been trailing Edwards in polls since the October gubernatorial primary, likely views tossing red meat to his base on Syrian refugees as a safe bet: a Bloomberg Politics national poll released Wednesday found that 69 percent of Republicans, and 53 percent of Americans overall, oppose accepting any Syrian refugees into the country.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at catherine@talkingpointsmemo.com.

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