Mary Landrieu represents a dying breed of Democrat. Elected initially based on family ties to the state and conservative/moderate stances on electoral issues they have nevertheless voted for numerous liberal initiatives, most notably Healthcare Reform.
Yet, instead of running away from the law Landrieu seems ready to embrace it. Her latest vote, to strip out of the House Continuing Resolution a provision to defund Obamacare, is just the latest of a series of actions to protect the law. To understand why Landrieu and to a lesser extent other Southern and red state Democrats are not running away from the law (minus Joe Manchin, elected in 2010, who never had to vote for the law), one must understand the particular electoral and geopolitical context of the state.
Louisiana’s modern voting patterns run back to 1964. Before this period the state was a solidly Democratic bastion due to Southern whites and African-Americans. In 1964 however, discontent with the Civil Rights Act drove the state to vote for Barry Goldwater, the first time the state had gone Republican in a generation. Following this in 68 the state followed a Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia in voting for George Wallace, a staunch segregationist. From 68 to 2008 the state followed national trends and voted for the White House winner each time. Nixon carried it in 72, Carter in 76, Reagan in 80 and 84, and HW in 88, Clinton in 92 and 96 and George Bush in 2000 and 2004. This voting pattern however masked significant electoral trends occurring in the state.
In years when Republican candidates carried the state the white population voted for their candidate. The black population consistently voted Democratic in all elections. When Democratic candidates carried the state during this period they had two characteristics, they were Southern and they somewhat united the white and black vote. Like most Southern states during this period, even as they voted Republican at the federal level they remained loyal to the Democratic party at the local level. Since reconstruction the state has elected three Republican Governors, the first of these in 1980, and Buddy Roemer, elected in 1988 as a Democrat, switched parties in 1991 but subsequently lost in the GOP primary.
So by the 1980’s, loyalty to the Democratic party was not just waning federally but also at the state level as evidenced by the election of a GOP Governor during this period. However the legislature remained solidly blue due to the often unruly coalition of rural, white lawmakers and urban New Orleans blacks. This coalition is all but gone today. Following the 2010 election which saw Bobby Jindal be reelected as Governor the state house and senate switched over to the GOP for the first time since reconstruction. Formerly conservative Democratic bastions had switched over to the GOP.
This is the environment Landrieu faces heading into 2014. The Democratic base in the state is now all but devoid of whites and instead composed of blacks residing in and around urban Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Further complicating things for Landrieu is that since she was first elected in 1996 the state has changed demographically. The urban exodus of blacks in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina has helped devoid the party of a key voting bloc. There has also been a significant influx of educated, conservative Northerners who have settled in the New Orleans suburbs.
The Landrieu name has deep roots in the state. The daughter of Moon Landrieu, one of few white mayors of New Orleans (her brother Mitch Landrieu is the city’s current mayor), Landrieu’s first elected post came in the state house where she served for 8 years. Following this stint she was elected state Treasurer from 88-96. When the Senate seat of incumbent Democratic Bennett Johnson came open she jumped at the chance. Since 96 Landrieu has been reelected three times, yet by unimpressive margins. In 96, despite finishing second in the first round of balloting (the state uses a jungle primary and if nobody earns 50% the top two vote getters proceed to a run-off) she managed to win an extremely narrow victory with 50.1% in the second round of balloting. In 2002 she won with 51.17% and in 2008, against subpar competition against a former Democrat turned Republican, hit 52%. Keep in mind in 2008 Democrats were triumphing nationwide by significant margins.
The Democratic base of the state is located in Orleans County, where New Orleans is located. Exit polls were not available in 2002 but they were available in 2008. As we can see from the polls Landrieu performed poorly among whites. But with a surge in black turnout in New Orleans making them 29% of the voting populace her weakness with the whites was covered. Looking at the map here we can see that Landrieu was buoyed by a stronger than expected performance in the northwest region of the state centered around Shreveport as well.
As mentioned above much in the state has changed dramatically. In 2008 then Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco was turned out in a wave of revulsion due to her response to Katrina. The state legislature has also flipped since 2010 and partisan trends and redistricting ensure it will stay that way for the decade. Even more concerning for Landrieu is that in 2010, conservative Democrat Charlie Melancon ran against freshman and scandal plagued GOP Senator David Vitter. Vitter utterly crushed Melancon but it is how he did so that should alarm Landrieu.
First off, turnout in Orleans county dropped significantly from 2008. Secondly, Vitter easily won all majority white areas of the state and even some liberal college counties. Finally, he carried Caddo Parrish where Shreveport is located and St. Landry Parrish where Baton Rouge is centered. The trend from the 2008 to 2010 election is clear as illustrated by this map here. The redder a county gets the more Republican it became in 2010 and the bluer more Democratic. As we can see the Democratic bastions along the Southern coast became more Republican due to a drop in black turnout. Southwestern counties turned more Democratic but Melancon represented many of those sparsely populated counties in Congress.
This is illuminating for Landrieu in 2014. White voters since 2008, following other Southern states, have become increasingly resistant to voting for any Democrat. While no exit polls were conducted in 2004 or 2010 the county map results show majority white counties were strongly Republican. There is also reason to believe that this trend is not age based. In other words, in a midterm electorate young voters are not substantially less likely to be conservative than older, more white voters.
As Mark Pryor in Arkansas is learning, running in a midterm environment can be toxic to an incumbent Southern Democrat. However, Landrieu has assets that other fellow Southern Democrats cannot count on. First, her base of African Americans is much larger than in states like Arkansas and North Carolina. Second, her brother is mayor of New Orleans, meaning he will be sure to drive turnout in the state for his sister. Lastly, Landrieu has taken the risky but likely beneficial strategy of embracing Obamacare, knowing it is popular in urban New Orleans. This also explains why she would vote for the Senate bill that would have expanded background checks to buy guns. The idea is extremely popular in New Orleans.
The downside to embracing Obamacare is that it will further weaken her among white voters. In 2008 black voters made up 29% of the state electorate while in 2012 their voting numbers increased by thousands in several Democratic counties. Still, combining these numbers is a far cry from achieving 50% support. Even replicating her 33% support of white voters in 2008 combined with 2012 black turnout would not net her 50%. Historically the run-off primary has helped her but this year it could prove a detriment as it ensures she would have to achieve 50% support to avoid a run-off. It is very conceivable her GOP opponent, Congressman Bill Cassidy, a traditional conservative not objectionable to the Tea Party or mainstream Republicans could be the one to hit 50% and avoid the run-off. Only one other Republican, Rob Maness is running with few resources.
Cassidy’s current district, the 6th, consists of Baton Rouge and several smaller towns traditionally friendly to Democrats running statewide. Cassidy eating into Landrieu’s margins or winning these areas should increase Landrieu’s concerns about reelection. Current polling has showed a mixed bag. PPP, a Democratic leaning firm has showed Landrieu ahead while Harper, a GOP firm, has given Cassidy a slim lead. Most alarming for the incumbent is the fact a solid majority disapprove of the President’s job performance and Obamacare. Come election day this might be enough to knock Landrieu off her perch and eliminate another white, Southern Democrat.