NEW ORLEANS—Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter and his chief Democratic challenger, Rep. Charlie Melancon, easily won their party's primaries Saturday, setting up what will likely be a nasty battle for Vitter's job in the Nov. 2 general election.
In a victory speech Saturday night, Melancon called Vitter "hostile to women." He cited a Vitter vote against an equal-pay law and news reports that Vitter had kept an aide who dealt with women's issues on his staff for two years after he was arrested for a violent attack on a woman.
Vitter's campaign didn't respond to a request for an interview with the senator and issued a statement continuing a major campaign theme - that Melancon is too liberal.
" Louisiana voters will get to choose between the current Obama policies of endless bailouts, failed stimulus, massive debt, and government-dominated health care, represented by Charlie Melancon, or the common sense conservative alternatives I've been advocating," it said.
Vitter campaign spokesman later said that Vitter has agreed to debate Melancon in late October at a New Orleans television station.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Vitter had 84,645 votes, 88 percent, in the Republican contest - in which only Republicans could vote - against retired state Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor with 7 percent and physician Nick Accardo with 5 percent.
Melancon had 73,730 votes, 70 percent of those cast, in the Democratic primary, open to Democrats and independents, against Neeson Chauvin, with 19 percent, and Cary Deaton, with 12 percent.
The Senate primary marked Vitter's first election since a 2007 prostitution scandal and more recent questions about his judgment in handling the employment of the aide.
Melancon and Vitter reach the Nov. 2 ballot with Randall Todd Hayes, who defeated Anthony Gentile in the Libertarian Party primary, where Hayes had almost two thirds of more than 2,400 cast. There also will be nine other candidates - independents or members of other parties - on Nov. 2.
Primaries also were held in four of the state's seven congressional districts. Key races were in the New Orleans-based 2nd District and in southeastern Louisiana's 3rd District, where Melancon was relinquishing his seat to challenge Vitter.
In the 2nd District, state Rep. Cedric Richmond easily won the Democratic primary over three other candidates - veteran political figure Eugene Green, newcomer Gary Johnson and state Rep. Juan Lafonta. Richmond will try to unseat incumbent Anh "Joseph" Cao in November. All four candidates are African-Americans running in a mostly black, mostly Democratic district where Cao's victory two years ago surprised many. Cao, unopposed for the Republican nomination, defeated longtime Rep. William Jefferson. Jefferson was under indictment at the time and later was convicted on federal corruption charges.
In the 3rd District Republican primary, a nasty contest developed between New Iberia lawyer Jeff Landry and former state House Speaker Hunt Downer of Houma, who are headed for an Oct. 2 runoff. Landry barely missed an outright victory with just under 50 percent of the vote. Downer had 36 percent. Kristian Magar, an oil field manager from New Iberia, placed a distant third. The lone Democratic candidate is Ravi Sangisetty.
"I started with nothing 90 days ago. Mr. Landry's been out there over a year campaigning, and he outspent us," Downer said late Saturday. "We're looking forward to the next 30 days. We closed the gap, and we'll continue to do so."
Despite an intense exchange of attacks in the days leading up to the primary, both Landry and Downer said they want to focus on issues as they continue their campaigns.
"I have always believed that this race has been about the issues: jobs, the economy, getting the country back on track," Landry said.
Despite the big story lines - Vitter's scandals, the nastiness between Landry and Downer, questions about black political strength in post-Katrina New Orleans - there appeared to be little interest in the election. With most precincts in Saturday night, fewer than 205,000 votes had been cast in the statewide primaries. Thre are more than 2.9 million registered voters in the state.
In other races, Democrat David Melville defeated Steven Gavi and will face U.S. Rep. John Fleming, a Republican seeking his second term in office in the 4th District.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander easily defeated his Republican opponent in the 5th District primary; Todd Slavant, had little money to mount a campaign against the four-term congressman from Quitman.
Several of the races centered around accusations of scandals and other issues.
Vitter had more than $5 million on hand, the support of state GOP leaders and strong poll numbers. His steadfast opposition to President Barack Obama played well with the GOP's conservative base, which was expected to deliver for him.
Traylor, a last-minute entry in the primary, had offered himself as a scandal-free alternative to Vitter. However, he was quickly dogged by questions about his own love life. His wife, who died last year, was once married to a state legislator, who recently accused Traylor of contributing to their breakup.
In the 2nd District, Richmond raised the most money and was endorsed by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. But he, too, had problems, including the fact that the state Supreme Court once suspended his law license for two months, saying he had sworn falsely to the certain city council district where he lived when he signed up to run for a council seat in 2005.
Disputes between Landry and Downer in the 3rd District centered on military service, legal entanglements and tax votes.
The accusations were among the only distinctions among the three GOP candidates, who offered largely similar rhetoric. They allied themselves with tea party beliefs, blasted federal spending levels and objected to nearly anything proposed or passed by President Barack Obama in their bid to gain Republican votes.
Downer began the race with the most name recognition. He had spent 28 years in the Louisiana House and retired as a major general in the Louisiana National Guard. But he was lambasted by some Republicans because he was a Democrat until 2001 and worked as a legislative lobbyist for former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco after he switched to the GOP.
Landry and Magar have never held public office, though Landry narrowly lost a state Senate seat in 2007 and before that worked as an aide to a former state senator from New Iberia.
No primaries were needed in the 1st District representing several suburbs of New Orleans or the Baton Rouge-based 6th District. The two incumbent Republican congressmen, Steve Scalise of Metairie and Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge, each attracted little-known Democratic challengers who have done little fundraising for the general election so far. Scalise also picked up a second challenger not affiliated with either party for the November election.
In Louisiana's 7th District, representing southwest Louisiana including Lake Charles and Lafayette, Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany didn't attract a challenger and advanced to a fourth term without an election.