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Sunday, November 2, 2008

End Notes

Posted By on Sun, Nov 2, 2008 at 4:17 AM

For my money, the race for U.S. Senate between Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu and Republican challenger John Kennedy has been the most interesting contest on the Louisiana ballot this year. Regardless of the outcome on Tuesday (Nov. 4), the race contained an interesting surprise and a familiar lesson.


As I write this (on Friday, Oct. 31, four days before the election), Landrieu appears to be holding on to a significant lead in all independent polls. We in the talking head business are fond of saying that polls do NOT predict an election’s outcome. Nonetheless, the closer we get to Election Day, the more likely a reputable pollster’s recent results will, in fact, presage the outcome. We’ll see.


The major surprise of this race was Landrieu’s decision to go on the attack early. Conventional wisdom posits that a frontrunner doesn’t attack, but Landrieu turned that wisdom on its ear. It turned out to be brilliant tack for several reasons. First, Landrieu has always started off her campaigns with positive messages about her promises and/or accomplishments — only to see her GOP challengers savage her with attacks, usually branding her as a “liberal” or associating her with liberal Democratic names. That, in turn, usually put her on the defensive and forced her into a damage-control mode.


This time, just as Kennedy launched his “penny pincher” ad introducing him to voters as a newly minted Republican conservative, Landrieu’s campaign unloaded on him. She unleashed the first wave of a non-stop media blitz, reminding voters that Kennedy ran for the same office as an unabashed liberal Democrat just four years ago — and labeling him “one confused politician.” Rightly or wrongly, the label stuck.


Landrieu’s early attack accomplished two very important goals for her: first, instead of letting Kennedy define himself (or re-define himself) as a Republican, Landrieu defined him in politically unflattering terms; second, her early barrage challenged Kennedy to start spending his relatively limited campaign cash at a time when her war chest was several times larger than his. That left Kennedy with an unenviable choice — whether to answer Landrieu’s attacks spot-for-spot, which he could not afford to do financially, or to let her attacks go unanswered, which he could not afford to do politically. He appeared to split the difference, answering her attacks as best he could, but hardly matching her spot-for-spot.


As a result, Kennedy had to start spending at a faster pace earlier in the contest. At the same time, her attacks took him off message and left him unable to define himself as he had hoped. As the campaign wore on, Landrieu continued to pound him with the “one confused politician” moniker, and he never got close enough to land a counterpunch of his own.


The lesson here for Republicans is one that they should have learned sooner, particularly after two previous losses to Landrieu: Don’t underestimate her. I have covered Landrieu’s campaigns since her first run for state representative in 1979, and from the beginning her opponents have consistently made that same mistake. If the results on Tuesday mirror the latest independent polls, that’s a lesson the GOP keeps having to relearn every six years.

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