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Landrieu, The Lone GOP Target

Landrieu, The Lone GOP Target

By Reid Wilson - August 16, 2008

It is rare that a Senate candidate merits the attention of the First Lady of the United States. Then again, it is rare this year that a Republican Senate candidate is actually competitive against a Democratic incumbent.

So Laura Bush's stop in Lafayette, Louisiana yesterday, on behalf of State Treasurer John Kennedy, served to underscore just how critical the GOP sees the state as a factor in their efforts to blunt what is expected to be a banner year for Democrats. In fact, most Republicans who follow the Senate landscape admit that Kennedy, who faces two-term Senator Mary Landrieu, is the party's only hope of winning back a seat this year.

The race has all the hallmarks of a typical Louisiana election -- which is to say, shifting loyalties to candidates transcend weak party affiliations, an early barrage of insults and negative ads and, in general, yet another example of politics in a state with a political climate unlike any other.

Polls show Landrieu and Kennedy locked in a tight race, and both campaigns say the race will be close in the end. The latest independent telephone survey, conducted by Louisiana-based Southern Media & Opinion Research, showed Landrieu leading by a narrow 46%-40% margin. Both candidates are pushing their records and slamming the other's flaws, and perhaps most interestingly, both candidates are taking a page out of the other party's playbook.

Kennedy is not a typical Republican challenger. In 2004, he ran for Senate as a Democrat, placing third in the state's unique Cajun primary, while backing John Kerry for president (A move he now calls a mistake). But Kennedy's record as State Treasurer allows him to call himself a fiscal conservative, and after wooing from GOP bigwigs including Karl Rove, Kennedy switched parties, won his re-election bid as a Republican and began running for Senate almost immediately.

Landrieu is not the typical Democratic incumbent. Instead of standing in the way of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on the Outer-Continental Shelf, Landrieu is perhaps the most prominent pro-drilling Democrat in the upper chamber, and is a leader among the so-called "Gang of Ten," a new bipartisan group pushing for energy compromises in the Senate (Though Kennedy's campaign has hammered her for opposing an oil shale development bill that failed by a single vote).

And Louisiana is certainly not a typical state. Approximately 30% of the electorate is African American, giving Democrats a good foundation from which to start statewide campaigns. But with a Democratic registration of nearly 54%, the divide between voters who habitually register Democratic and those who actually vote that way shows through; despite Democrats out-registering Republicans by a two-to-one margin, the GOP holds five of seven statewide offices, and Democratic Senator John Breaux's seat was an easy pickup for Republican David Vitter when Breaux retired in 2004.

The state's political geography is a lot more complex than most others. The Democratic base, demography expert Greg Rigamer and independent analyst Elliott Stonecipher said, is concentrated in urban areas around the state with high African American populations, like Monroe, in the northeast; Shreveport, in the northwest; and Alexandria, in the center of the state. New Orleans and Baton Rouge, just a few miles west, make up the bulk of the state's African American population. But those areas alone won't win a statewide election, and Republican voters in more rural areas cancel them out. The only state in the union with parishes instead of counties, it is those voters who follow their parish bosses who decide elections. They are largely conservative, but they can be persuaded to vote Democratic, and many Republican elected officials even in Kennedy's home county are backing Landrieu this year.

Landrieu is running on her record as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, from which she has steered billions back to her state, especially in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "Our focus is going to be what she's done for the state and her record in the Senate," says spokesman Scott Schneider. "She sits on the right committees for Louisiana."

Kennedy is trying to claim the "change" mantle, which could work in the state given reform efforts led by Republican legislators and new Governor Bobby Jindal, and as a fiscal conservative. "Congress is the most dysfunctional part of Washington. They spend money like it's West Virginia ditch water," he said on a recent conference call. "Louisiana voters have always known John Kennedy as independent-minded and fiscally conservative," added spokesman Lenny Alcivar.

Louisiana, added Alcivar, "is almost the inverse of what's happening nationally. This is one of the few states, maybe the only state, where the change mantle and the reform mantle is owned by the Republican brand."

But their strength could also be a weakness for both candidates. Kennedy's focus on the broken side of Washington highlights Landrieu's incumbency, which his campaign thinks is enough to sink her. Landrieu is on the early offensive, with a television ad slamming Kennedy's four failed bids for statewide office, all as a Democrat.

Political watchers in the Pelican State generally agree that Kennedy's past bids for office as a Democrat will hurt him. "We all are buckled up waiting for the advertising and so forth that show that John's willing to be whatever he needs to be to get elected to whatever he wants to get elected to," Stonecipher said. "John would be better off if people could accuse him of being" a liberal or a conservative.

"He's a RINO," Stonecipher continued, calling Kennedy a Republican in name only. "Because of that, how many people really do decide that Mary Landrieu's seniority gives her the edge? Louisiana so desperately needs that seniority."

Kennedy's campaign doesn't buy the argument that his past as a Democrat will hurt him, and they have a compelling case. To Louisianans, unlike virtually any other state, party affiliation matters little. "If this were any other state, that [argument] might work," Alcivar said. "You can ask Billy Tauzin. You can ask Rodney Alexander," he said, naming a former and current member of Congress, respectively, who switched from the Democratic to Republican Party with little electoral impact. "People witch parties a lot."

Too, Kennedy's campaign has tried to portray Landrieu not only as a pork-addicted part of a broken Washington, but as someone with close ties to Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama. "I made a mistake in 2004, I've admitted it. I endorsed John Kerry," Kennedy said recently. "Senator Landrieu is making a big mistake in this race by endorsing Senator Obama." Landrieu, perhaps sensing the political heat, took her name off an invitation to a Washington fundraiser on Obama's behalf (Her campaign said Landrieu had never agreed to be a formal sponsor).

But like the knock on Kennedy, his shots at Landrieu highlight the uncertainty surrounding the presidential contest's effect on the Senate race. "Mary is either going to benefit mightily from the Obama effect, or the Obama effect is going to prove out the axiom of, 'For every political action, there's an equal and opposite reaction,'" Stonecipher said. Historically, turnout in a presidential year is ten to fifteen percent higher than it is in non-presidential years. If that boost this year comes from African American voters, who make up 30% of the electorate and a voting bloc Landrieu has proved again and again will turn out to support her, the Democrat will have an easier time keeping her seat. But if that boost comes from white voters in the northern part of the state more likely to back McCain, Kennedy will benefit.

Despite the blows the state took from Katrina and Rita, recovery of the state's African American electorate could be an overlooked factor this year. "Senator Landrieu will not be losing African American votes as a result of Katrina," Rigamer said. In 2002, about 328,000 African Americans came out to vote. In 2007, about 310,000 made it to the polls, a negligible change, and indicating that the population base is largely intact.

Early in the race, Landrieu appears to be running ahead, if only slightly. With a big cash-on-hand lead over Kennedy, Landrieu is already attempting to define her opponent as a flip-flopper, a move the two campaigns see in very different lights. "Politicians don't run attack ads out of strenght, they run them out of fear," Kennedy spokesman Alcivar said. "We plan on totally utilizing [our] fundraising advantage," countered Landrieu spokesman Schneider.

The two campaigns are following closely to textbook politics. Landrieu's case boils down to a record of returning money to the state and an opponent who leaps at political opportunity. Kennedy's case boils down to an appeal for change and an incumbent who represents the status quo of a broken Washington. Each accuses the other of preparing for a negative campaign while touting their own successes. With both national parties poised to invest millions in the state -- Republicans because it's their best chance at picking up a Democratic-held seat and Democrats because it's their only place to play defense -- the sentiment of the oncoming campaign as the most negative in state history seems about to be borne out.

But Louisiana is a state in which a typical textbook gets thrown out the window. Whichever candidate can appeal to voters who have switched between parties themselves, run with their presidential candidates while simultaneously running away from their message, and turn out voters from their political bases looks most likely to win the seat in November.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

Copyright 2008, Real Clear Politics

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