Mary Landrieu's current bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate is easily the toughest challenge of her career. That's nothing new for Landrieu, an 18-year Democratic incumbent. Every time she runs, it's the toughest race of her career.
But something seems different this time. Louisiana's ongoing tilt to the right — or "red" in the pigmented parlance of today's pundits — has made her the state's lone statewide elected Democrat. Now more than ever, she is the state GOP's No. 1 target.
In her three prior Senate races, Landrieu cobbled together a coalition that included blacks, labor, women and moderate Republicans — including a respectable number of GOP business leaders and local officials who put pragmatism ahead of party loyalty. Many who disagree with Landrieu philosophically nonetheless value her 18-year incumbency as well as her recent ascension to chairwoman of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a key position for a Louisiana senator.
Landrieu also caught a lot of the breaks in her previous Senate races. This year, not so much.
Without question the biggest difference between this year's Senate contest and Landrieu's race in 2008 is The Obama Factor. In 2008, the then-Democratic presidential nominee fared poorly in Louisiana, but voters here separated him from Landrieu. Obama got less than 40 percent of the stateside vote in 2008, but Landrieu beat her main GOP opponent by more than 121,000 votes the same day.
Landrieu did not endorse Obama in 2008, but his presence atop the ballot was a godsend to her campaign. It increased black voter turnout significantly, which boosted her vote total.
This year, things are very different. Obama is not on the ballot, but he may as well be as far as Landrieu's opposition is concerned. Political scientists and pollsters uniformly describe him as "a millstone around Landrieu's neck" among white voters, who comprise about two-thirds of the state's electorate. Ironically, she still needs Obama voters in the black community to rally behind her in order to win.
The president's unpopularity among white voters explains why Landrieu's main GOP opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge, and several Super PACs that support him constantly tell voters that she "voted with Obama 97 percent of the time." While that's unquestionably an inflated figure confected by Republicans, the mantra has resonated among conservative whites.
"Cassidy and Landrieu aren't really that different, philosophically," says University of Louisiana at Lafayette political scientist Pearson Cross, a veteran observer of Louisiana elections. "He's not the most conservative Republican, and she's not the most liberal Democrat. So Cassidy is trying to make this a referendum on Barack Obama. If he can succeed in doing that, he wins almost by default without having to have strong credentials on his own."
Michael Henderson, research director at LSU's Public Policy Research Lab, says Obama "has become a polarizing figure" who rallies conservatives against anyone associated with him.
"If anyone wants to vote against Barack Obama, this is the chance to do it," Henderson says. "They can go express their antipathy for this president by taking the Senate away from his party. That's why Cassidy runs ads saying, 'Landrieu represents Barack Obama and I represent Louisiana.'"
Despite the president's unpopularity, Cross still calls this race a toss-up.
"I don't think anybody has won or lost this race," he says. "If I had to pick, I still think I would pick Landrieu because of her incumbency. Of course, that could change because we're headed into the period where candidates are going to be spending all their money."
On several levels, Landrieu faces a different kind of Republican opposition this time. Cassidy is Landrieu's first challenger with Washington experience. He doesn't have to study national issues to discuss them with authority; he has voted on them since he arrived in Congress in 2009. Of course, Cassidy's voting record, like Landrieu's, gives his opponent fodder for campaign attacks, but no one can say he doesn't know the issues.
In addition, the tea party remains a viable — some say growing — statewide political force. Landrieu's other major GOP rival, retired Entergy exec and former Air Force Col. Rob Maness of Madisonville, is the darling of Louisiana's tea party. Maness has tossed at least as many grenades at Cassidy as he has at the incumbent (one of the few breaks Landrieu has caught this year), but his presence in the race — and his steady rise in the polls — means this contest could go to a Dec. 6 runoff. Many observers feel that would not be good for Landrieu.
"If it comes down to this being the last race in the country, the one that could put the Republicans in control of the Senate, or if the Republicans have already won control on Nov. 4, she's probably toast," says LSU's Henderson. "If the Democrats keep the Senate in November, that's her best argument for re-election in December, but even then it's difficult. [The importance of Landrieu's incumbency] is more likely to resonate than border security or Social Security, but I don't know if it's going to convince anyone who hates Barack Obama to vote for her. It will still be a turnout game for her in December."
"All bets are off if this goes to a runoff and if Louisiana is going to be a deciding race in terms of who controls the Senate," Cross says. "If that happens, we'll experience a campaign the likes of which we have-n't seen for a long time. You'll see intensity on both sides that hasn't been hit since the 1991 governor's race between Edwin Edwards and David Duke. That was the last time the nation beat a path down to Louisiana."
Democratic Congressman Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, who supports Landrieu, says candidates and Super PACs could spend between $50 million and $100 million on Louisiana's Senate race if it goes to a runoff. That's another major difference this year, thanks to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to corporate contributions and virtually unlimited "independent" (wink-wink) expenditures by Super PACs.
All agree that the barrage of TV and radio ads attacking Landrieu will only escalate in the coming weeks.
Another major difference this election cycle is the smaller number of high-profile Republican endorsements for Landrieu. The chief exception is shipbuilder Donald "Boysie" Bollinger, whose TV pitch for Landrieu ranks among her best media spots thus far. Otherwise, most of the marquee Republican elected officials who broke party ranks to publicly endorse her in 2008 are staying mum this year. Those endorsements, particularly one by Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, helped put Landrieu over the top in 2008.
For her part, Landrieu is said to be happy that many local GOP officials are still on the sidelines. "We consider it a victory that some of the most respected Republican parish and statewide leaders are not backing Cassidy publicly," one Landrieu campaign aide says. "Privately, they wish us well because they know Mary has delivered handsomely for them in the past and will do so again. They also know a freshman Republican senator won't be able to do anything of consequence for Louisiana."
While Normand remains neutral in this year's Senate race, the Louisiana Sheriff's Association gave Landrieu its endorsement over the summer. The sheriffs' group is always a sought-after endorsement by statewide candidates, especially those who, like Landrieu, need a strong turnout on Election Day. In addition to the sheriffs, Landrieu recently announced endorsements from a host of local elected officials as part of her "I'm with Mary" campaign theme.
In contrast to the GOP tack of trying to make this election all about Obama, Landrieu's strategy is to remind voters of the late Tip O'Neill's time-honored maxim: All politics is local. If she can get voters to focus on her ability to "deliver handsomely" for Louisiana — and overlook Obama's unpopularity — she increases her chances of victory significantly.
"Turnout is absolutely the key for Landrieu," says UNO pollster and political scientist Ed Chervenak. "Looking at her previous mid-term election, turnout overall was about 40 percent. She needs to get it above that. She needs voters who typically don't turn out for midterm elections to come out and vote for her this time."
Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge-based pollster, agrees.
"The emphasis of her campaign, the best scenario for her, is robo-calls from Barack Obama right before Election Day," Pinsonat says. "It's all about turnout on Nov. 4 — and you have turnout scenarios that favor her in Shreveport, where there's a hotly contested mayor's race on the ballot, in the 5th Congressional District and in the 6th Congressional District."
Shreveport, like New Orleans, is a majority-black city. In the 5th Congressional District, Monroe's black mayor, Jamie Mayo, is challenging Republican incumbent Vance McAllister. And in the 6th District, former Gov. Edwin Edwards (who has always been popular among black voters) leads a crowded field of candidates.
Both Pinsonat and Chervenak use the same turnout benchmark for Landrieu: They say she needs black voter turnout to be no more than 6 percent lower than white voter turnout on Nov. 4. Traditionally, black turnout is several points lower than white turnout — a phenomenon political observers and operatives call "the differential."
"If the differential is 6 percent or more, she is in trouble," Pinsonat says. "The closer she can keep turnout among blacks to that of whites, the better off she will be. Among white voters, what's going to matter is whether Mary can separate herself enough from Obama and convince people that Louisiana needs her in Washington to bring home the bacon. Her worst nightmare is too many voters holding her accountable for the policies of President Obama."
LSU's Henderson notes that Landrieu has been in tight races before and found a way to win.
"If anyone can do it this time around, she can," Henderson says. "But it's going to be very, very tight. It's going to come down to voter mobilization. It's less about persuasion, more about getting out the vote."
Hand-in-hand with "localizing" the race is Landrieu's goal of winning outright in November, when turnout is likely to be highest. If the race goes to a runoff — as most polls currently suggest will happen — she could be in trouble.
"There are no good scenarios in a December runoff for Landrieu," says Pinsonat. "She needs to win in November, which is what she's trying to do. ... Her worst nightmare is for this to be the race in December, the one that decides control of the Senate. On the other hand, it's not impossible for her to win this in November. If I were her, that's what I would be pushing for."
Pinsonat adds that if the Democrats retain control of the Senate on Nov. 4, which few if any pundits predict right now, "that would be one of the best scenarios for Landrieu. She would still have a tough battle, but her seniority and committee chairmanship is a message that she could sell."
While Landrieu walks a tightrope — needing to distance herself from Obama while also needing his voters to turn out for her — Cassidy has just one message: Obama, Obama, Obama.
"The probability model shows Cassidy with the advantage right now," says Chervenak. "It's based on a number of polls, fundraising and other variables that analysts put into their model. ... He's getting lots of exposure with all this money coming in."
Chervenak says Cassidy's strategy is to make the cut in November and then hope only "chronic voters" show up in December. The November ballot will be crowded with lots of local races, many of which will drive up voter turnout. If the Senate race goes to a December runoff, it will be the only Senate race in the country, and there will be far fewer local races on Louisiana's ballot.
"If it's chronic voters only — mostly older and whiter, who lean Republican — then Cassidy has a clear advantage," Chervenak says.
In a way, Cassidy is waging the same kind of campaign that Mitt Romney ran nationally in 2012 — what pundits call an "air game" — pouring virtually all his money into an intense media volley against Landrieu and Obama. The Super PACs that support his candidacy are doing likewise, only with lots more money.
Henderson says the GOP strategy of making this race part of a national referendum on Obama represents Cassidy's best chance to win.
"Normally we would think of an incumbent three-term senator, it's her race to lose. This is the opposite," Henderson says. "If she pulls it out, I think people will think of it as an upset. The deck appears to be stacked against her because national issues do not favor her. ... It's going to come down to turning out your vote, which is probably easier for [Cassidy]. The Republican base is more or less self-mobilized because of Obama."
While Cassidy started the campaign well behind Landrieu, the media barrage against her has brought him even with, and in some polls slightly ahead of, his Democratic opponent. Many suspect that the recent surveys showing him ahead caused him to decline several debates against Landrieu. He also is considered a less-than-dynamic public speaker, and no doubt his handlers don't want to take any risks in a freewheeling debate against Landrieu, who is a veteran of the campaign trail.
Will the criticism that Cassidy is "ducking debates" hurt him?
"I don't think it will turn anyone against him who wasn't already against him," Henderson says. "It's part of the back and forth. Normally, however, it's the incumbent who ducks debates. Cassidy is behaving like an incumbent. ... Maybe debating more would actually hurt him if he's not a very good debater."
Another potential weakness for Cassidy is fellow Republican Maness.
"The best thing Landrieu has going for her is Maness," Pinsonat says. "She needs the Republicans to screw up and give her some room, and Maness offers the best opportunity for that to happen because he's criticizing Cassidy among conservatives. Maness is not running against Mary right now. He's running mainly against Cassidy, and only somewhat against Mary."
Chervenak says Maness embodies the "civil war" that is going on nationally within the GOP between "traditional" or "mainstream" Republicans and hard-core conservatives in the tea party faction. "Louisiana is not immune from the factionalism that's taking place in the Republican Party," he says. "Politically, Maness seems to be doing more harm to Cassidy. He is going to pull votes away from Cassidy."
Although Maness galvanizes tea party conservatives at Cassidy's expense right now, Cross predicts those conservatives likely will embrace Cassidy in a runoff.
"If Cassidy comes in ahead of Landrieu in the first round, I think he's very likely to be the winner in December because the tea party voters will swing to him," Cross says. "She needs to be up in the first round by three to five points or more in order to have a good chance of making it in the second round. If it goes 47-42 for Landrieu in November, with Maness at around 11, I think Landrieu has a good chance. But if Cassidy finishes ahead of her, he looks very strong at that point. ...
"I don't think Cassidy is a shoo-in by any stretch. I think it's very competitive — and I think there's going to be a runoff because of Maness."
At the end of the day, Landrieu's task is to thread the political needle one more time. Henderson recalls that she did exactly that in her last midterm election in 2002 — another year that was not very good for Democrats. "She still managed to win that one," he says. "It's going to be tough for any Democrat running in Louisiana this year. She might be the only one who could pull it out — but then again it might be just hard enough to put it out of reach."