Saturday, June 21, 2014

Whither Mary Landrieu?

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA)

Mark Pryor gets all of the comeback press.  Kay Hagan gets all of the money.  Mark Begich gets a surprisingly large amount of benefit of the doubt considering his conservative constituency.  However, lost in this sea of tight races is one featuring the most senior vulnerable Democrat running for reelection this year: the Bayou State’s very own Mary Landrieu.  Landrieu’s race has become something of an afterthought as more and more people push her to the back of the line in terms of importance, and increasingly, some even writing her off.  The question is how and why did Mary Landrieu become the most vulnerable elected senator running for reelection this cycle, and is there still room for her to recover in the upcoming months?

Landrieu’s status in Louisiana is legendary.  The daughter of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, Landrieu has campaigned statewide seven times now, and has so far lost only once (her race for governor in 1995), but none of her Senate elections, it should be noted, were particularly close.  Louisiana has been a red state for a number of years now, and Landrieu won by only three-tenths in 1996, was forced into a runoff in 2002, and managed only 53% of the vote in 2008.  All-in-all, she’s a longtime incumbent that has never enjoyed a longtime popularity.

That being said, the name of the game in Louisiana is 50%, and that’s something Landrieu has been able to play.  She has never received more than 53% of the vote in a Senate election, but she’s been able to cross over to fifty either in a runoff or in an initial election every time.

What’s different this year?  For starters, she’s had some solid luck in the past few campaigns that hasn’t yet materialized.  In 1996, she had Bill Clinton winning on the top of the ticket, the last Democrat to take the Bayou State in a presidential run.  In 2002, she had a surprisingly weak opponent and a brilliantly timed report about the Bush administration supporting sugar imports in Mexico (sugar being a major crop in struggling Louisiana).  And in 2008, though Barack Obama clearly didn’t win the state, he was far more of a plus for Landrieu, who won enough white Democratic voters to get over 50% where Barack Obama couldn’t, but also greatly benefited from President Obama’s huge turnout in the African-American communities (it’s worth noting that Jim Martin in Georgia and Kay Hagan in North Carolina were also getting stronger than expected margins thanks to President Obama’s turnout of black voters in the South).

This year, though, Landrieu doesn’t have anything at her side except excellent political skills and the knowledge that she has a bit more time than the rest of the Democrats in the country.  Thanks to the Louisiana runoff election laws, if no one exceeds 50% of the vote in November, a runoff between the top two candidates will happen in December.  This is the best card in Landrieu’s arsenal, and one that I’m guessing she’ll play (she’s probably the most skilled politician running in a close Senate race this cycle, with the exception of Mitch McConnell, and she has actually been behind in polls before and knows how to bounce back).

All of this is to say that the cards are heavily stacked against Landrieu (she has to figure out a way to drive record numbers of black voters out for a midterm while maintaining her dwindling alliance with white Democrats in the state), but they aren’t impossible (yet).  If I were her, I’d start taking down Bill Cassidy immediately in ads and trumpeting up her seniority in a state that (like Mississippi) relies heavily on federal money and assistance.  She’s the Senate Energy Chair, which is huge in a state that has historically valued what their politicians could bring home, and perhaps best of all she has her brother as an asset.  Mitch Landrieu is the current mayor of New Orleans, and since New Orleans is where the bulk of Landrieu’s votes will come from, she’ll need him turning out every person he can find to the ballot box in November.

And that’s the other thing about this race, and why Landrieu does have extra time, but not as much as the press would make you think: I don’t think Mary Landrieu can pull off a runoff election.  With Mark Pryor looking better-and-better and Mark Begich/Alison Lundergan Grimes running extremely strong, there’s a very strong possibility that Mary Landrieu’s seat will be the key to Democratic control of the Senate (Michelle Nunn in Georgia may also be in for a runoff at that point, but that race seems to be turning more and more to the Republicans with support consolidating around Jack Kingston).  If Republicans pick up Montana, West Virginia, and South Dakota, hold Georgia/Kentucky, and only win two of the AR/IA/MI/NC/AK races, Louisiana suddenly becomes the center of the political universe.  Landrieu won’t be able to win a runoff in a state that leans hard right and where all of the focus will be on her-Bill Cassidy is stronger than Suzie Terrell (who lost to her in 2002), and Landrieu doesn’t always respond well when put in the spotlight (think of how she botched the gay marriage question, for example).  She needs to deliver 50+1 in November, which is a tall order, but not an impossible one (she did it in 2008, after all). 

Oddly, the best thing to happen to Landrieu may have been when a politician she shouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole got into the race: controversial former Governor Edwin Edwards in Louisiana’s sixth district.  In a race desperate for a frontrunner, Edwards is sure to drive up support from his white Democratic base in a way few other politicians in the state can, and though he’s way too toxic politically for Landrieu to campaign with, he’s still going to get her a few votes that she may not have gotten otherwise.

All-in-all, though, Mary Landrieu has the toughest election of the “wall Democrats” running in red states this year.  She’s by far the better campaigner and more experienced senator, but will that be enough in the face of an electorate that has moved deeply to her right?

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