The Republican lost a deeply negative battle for the Louisiana governor's office Saturday to Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards.
As he conceded Saturday night after losing by 12 percentage points, Vitter announced he's retiring from the Senate when his term ends, rather than running for re-election in 2016.
"I have reached my personal term limit," he said.
Vitter told his supporters that while "I came up short -- you all were fabulous."
"I've lost one political campaign in my life, tonight. And ironically, it's the campaign and the political effort I am most proud of," Vitter said.
Edwards will succeed Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal
and becomes the first Democratic governor to win election in the Deep South in 12 years -- countering the prevailing narrative in recent years that Democrats have lost the ability to win in that portion of the country.
"This election shows us that the people of Louisiana in a time of deep cynicism about our politics, and also about our future, that the people have chosen hope over scorn, over negativity," Edwards said in a victory speech Saturday night.
The Democrat also thanked his supporters in a tweet.
Vitter had been dogged from the start of his gubernatorial bid about his purported history with hookers. In the summer of 2007, he apologized for committing "a serious sin" after his phone number appeared on the client list of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the "D.C. Madam.
" Democrats tried to make it an issue in Vitter's 2010 re-election bid
. But in a heavily Republican year, he skated to victory.
Running for state office, though, the charges stuck. A state trial lawyers' group ran an independent spot prior to the October 24 all-party "jungle primary" hitting Vitter for the alleged past solicitation.
Vitter limped into the runoff, finishing a distant second behind Edwards. A defeated Republican rival, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, endorsed Democratic candidate Edwards. Another vanquished GOP foe, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, stayed neutral.
The Edwards campaign hammered on the prostitution allegations relentlessly, capped by one of the hardest-hitting spots in recent political history. Going back to Vitter's House days, in 2001, the Edwards television ad argued the Republican "answered a prostitute's call minutes after he skipped a vote honoring 28 soldiers who gave their lives in defense of our freedom," thereby choosing "prostitutes over patriots."
Vitter's campaign tried to change the subject by seizing on controversy over whether Syrian refuges
should be allowed into the United States, in the wake of the Paris massacre
. Edwards' position, opposing resettlement on American soil, was virtually indistinguishable from Vitter's, though he didn't dwell on it while campaigning.
Vitter's defeat is a harsh blow in a once-promising political career. The Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar had been seen as a rising Republican political force before the scandal broke. Vitter could seek re-election to the Senate in 2016, though Republican colleagues are hardly enthusiastic
about that scenario, concerned his unpopularity could throw the seat to a Democratic opponent.
Edwards brings a varied background to the governor's office. A 1988 West Point graduate, Edwards served as an Army Ranger, among other duties, during an eight-year military career. After earning a law degree at Louisiana State University and working as an attorney, Edwards won election to the state House in 2008.
Once Edwards takes office in January, there will be 31 Republican governors, 18 Democrats and one independent.
The Vitter defeat will have ripple effects in Louisiana politics. Two Republican House members, Charles Boustany and John Fleming, had openly angled for appointment to the Senate by Vitter, had he won. So has state Treasurer John Kennedy. Now each pol will have to stay in his current job.
Republicans said they will keep control of the Legislature.
"Despite a disappointing result in the gubernatorial race, we're confident that our Republican Legislature and activists across the state will hold governor-elect Edwards accountable to his campaign promises of not raising taxes, protecting school choice and defending our conservative family values," said Roger Villere, chairman of the Republican Party of Louisiana.