The Landrieu name is interwoven into Louisiana state political culture. Come November/December 2014 and it could be all but a distant memory. Senator Mary Landrieu, first elected in 1996 faces her toughest reelection yet in the ever reddening state.
Louisiana, like most of the South, is solidly Republican at the federal and state level (exceptions to this include Kentucky and West Virginia). The GOP controls all constitutional executive offices and the state legislature (captured for the first time since reconstruction in 2010). Six of the state’s seven Congressional districts are occupied by Republicans and David Vitter holds one of the state’s two US Senate seats. The state has not voted for a Democratic President since 1996.
Unlike most states in the country Louisiana also has a quirky electoral system in its jungle primary (only California and WA State have similar systems). In essence, all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run on one ballot in November. If no candidate hits 50% to avoid a run-off the top two vote-getters go head to head in December.
Landrieu’s electoral victories in the state have been underwhelming. In 1996, riding President Clinton’s coattails, she won a narrow runoff victory by just over 5,000 votes. In 2002, she narrowly beat Republican Susanne Terrell in a run-off and in 2008 she used Obama’s coattails to win outright in November 2008 with 52%. Noticeably, none of these victories are large. Her victory in 2014, assuming she wins, is unlikely to be either.
Landrieu’s strongest challenger is Congressman Bill Cassidy. Cassidy is a polished candidate with millions in the bank and is a physician by profession. He has wielded Landrieu’s vote for Obamacare as a hammer. Cassidy does have his own party foes in retired Air Force Colonel Rob Maness and state rep. Paul Hollis. None appears likely to derail Cassidy but they could split the GOP vote and allow Landrieu to win the race outright. She needs too.
Turnout among the geographic and demographic Democratic base in the state, New Orleans and blacks, drops off significantly in December. Further, only Milwaukee is more polarized along voting lines than urban and suburban New Orleans. Landrieu’s brother is mayor of the city and has promised to aid his sister’s election. However, even he can only do so much to mobilize an unexcited base. Republicans are chomping at the bit to defeat Landrieu, especially if her election in December holds the fate to control of the Senate.
It has been suggested that the specter of a GOP controlled Senate might help Landrieu in November. I just don’t see it. Electoral history shows that turnout among Democrats drops from the November jungle primary to December runoff. Further, GOP resources would pour into the state and likely outweigh Democrats substantial financial assets.
Even Landrieu’s new committee chairmanship may not be an asset. Despite chairing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Landrieu has done little to show she is an asset to the state. So far, she has only hinted that she would bring up a Keystone bill to vote on and is more talk than action on aiding the energy industry.
Republicans remain more mobilized nationally than Democrats and there is no reason to suggest it is any different in Louisiana. GOP favoring outside groups have already been on the airwaves hammering her vote on Obamacare. Adding to Landrieu’s woes are her poll numbers in head to head match-ups with Cassidy. While she wins handily in the jungle primary she does so by less than 50% and is thus unable to avoid a run-off. On the opposite end, Cassidy runs strongest in head to head match-ups with Landrieu despite being far less known statewide. He also easily is the runner-up in jungle primary polls. Landrieu’s lone saving grace is Cassidy is below 50% and most polls are within the margin of error. Still, any incumbent below 50% in a red state is definitely endangered.
Perhaps Landrieu will play in the jungle primary to try to boost Maness or Hollis. It might just allow her to eke out 50% plus one. But even this is wishful thinking. In 2008 Landrieu won on the strength of her appeal to Independents. But in 2002, all Republicans in the jungle primary garnered just over 50% of the vote to a combined 47.89% for Democrats (Landrieu received 46%). In 1996, Republicans combined for 51% of the primary vote compared to a meager 43% for Democrats (Landrieu was the runner-up with 21% and change).
Election 1996 was a favorable year for Democrats nationwide. In 2002, Landrieu ran on agreeing with President Bush on national security and in 2008 Landrieu had Obama to boost Democratic turnout. The external environment is far different this time around. The President is deeply unpopular nationwide and in the state. Gallup pegs his average 2013 approval in the state at 40% (held up by New Orleans). Obamacare is even more unpopular than the President in the state.
Landrieu can run from the President on key issues such as Obamacare (fix, not repeal) and against his energy policy. But at the end of the day she has done little to stall the President. She also faces an electoral contradiction. The more she runs from the President the more she risks alienating her urban, New Orleans base. While the vast majority of voters in the city will back her in November it is unclear how big a percentage of the voting public they will constitute. Centrist voters may be more likely to back her but they are few and far between in Louisiana.
In short, Landrieu needs to win outright in November. If she does not and control of the Senate likely hinges on her seat it is very hard to see her winning. Republicans are mobilized, outside groups would outspend her and her allies and the state electorate would likely be older, whiter and more Republican.