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Imperiled Red-State Dems Follow Their Own Playbooks

Imperiled Red-State Dems Follow Their Own Playbooks

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - May 1, 2013

Sen. Mary Landrieu is the last Democratic statewide officeholder standing in Louisiana. If Republicans have their way, and voters tie her to the president who lost the state by 17 points last fall, she won’t be standing for long.

Landrieu is one of a handful of Democratic senators up for re-election in a red state in 2014. Members of this class last appeared on the ballot with Barack Obama in 2008, and next year's midterms will be the first time they’ve run since his election as president. The GOP will try to pin these incumbents in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina to Obamacare, the budget and gun legislation in an effort to nationalize the races. The reason is simple: The incumbent president’s party typically doesn’t do well in midterms.

But Landrieu is running for a fourth term by following her own rules, something other red state Democrats will have to do as well. She’s promoting her support of the national health care law, which is unpopular in Louisiana; is backing her party’s budget, which includes tax increases; and joined a majority of fellow Democrats in supporting a background check for gun buyers -- a vote she cast despite knowing the measure would fail and which she called a tough but rational choice.

“I’ve won three times already in a red state and have a proven an ability to garner support from Democrats, independents and Republicans for a winning coalition,” Landrieu, 57, said in an interview with RealClearPolitics.

Democrats are defending 20 Senate seats in 2014, and Landrieu’s is a top target for Republican officials hoping to net the six seats they need to control the upper chamber. And Louisiana is becoming increasingly unfriendly to the incumbent’s party. A loss would reflect the downward trend of support for Southern Democrats, and underscore the challenge of running against a strong GOP tide. A victory, though, would be a testament to Landrieu’s strong personal brand and extensive experience, and also to the strategy of sticking to one’s own local playbook.

“The Democratic Party did a great job holding the Senate last time,” Landrieu said. “President Obama’s re-election was a real victory for the party and I think progressive politics in our country, but I think all these [red state] races are competitive. They didn’t just start being competitive yesterday; they’ve been competitive for a long time, particularly in the South, so it’s not something I’m not familiar with or not used to, and that’s why I run and am proud to be a Democrat. But I’m very proud of the support I get from independents and Republicans, which gives me the margin of victory.”

Localizing races seemed to work for several Democrats in 2012. North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, Virginia’s Tim Kaine, and Montana’s Jon Tester, for example, all won with that strategy. But GOP candidate selection figured into Democratic wins in Indiana and Missouri.

Louisiana Republican operatives say that while the GOP candidate matters, the Senate race there will be more “anybody-but-Landrieu” and anti-Obama than about the Republican opponent. Democrats, they argue, are a dying breed in the state. Though Landrieu is part of a family dynasty (her father, Moon, is a former New Orleans mayor and her brother Mitch now occupies that post with high approval ratings), the state is turning redder. Nonetheless, the operatives concede, Landrieu over-performs in conservative precincts and among white, independent voters.

Rep. Bill Cassidy is the only Republican officially in the race. Former Rep. Jeff Landry, a conservative who lost a member vs. member race last cycle, may also contend. Landrieu has never won re-election with more than 52 percent of the vote, and the 2014 race figures to be no different -- perhaps even closer.

Cassidy, a doctor from Baton Rouge, will stress his opposition to Obamacare. Landrieu is unapologetic about voting for the 2010 law. GOP efforts to bludgeon Democrats in 2012 with that vote proved futile, but by next year the Affordable Care Act will be fully implemented. Whether voters view it as a drag or a benefit is to be determined.

The president addressed that concern during his press conference Tuesday. “Even if we do everything perfectly, there will still be glitches and bumps, and there will be stories that can be written that say, ‘Oh, look -- this thing's not working the way it's supposed to and this happened and that happened,’ and that's pretty much true of every government program that's ever been set up,” he said.

Landrieu supported the law and secured in it an additional $300 million in Medicaid funds for her state, which she said GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal and other members of the Louisiana delegation also backed in light of post-Hurricane Katrina needs. The deal became known as the Louisiana Purchase and opponents painted Landrieu as a sellout. She took to the Senate floor that February to defend the provision and to strike back at critics. The health care vote doomed Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln’s 2010 re-election bid. But unlike Landrieu, Lincoln had faced a brutal primary challenge and lagged early in the polls. 

Republicans are waging similar anti-health care and anti-Obama campaigns against incumbent Democrats Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina and have been anxiously tracking their votes in the upper chamber. But there is some nuance and separation among these Democrats.

Landrieu and Hagan voted for a bipartisan gun control measure, sponsored by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, that would have expanded the current background check system to include purchasers at gun shows and on the Internet. Begich and Pryor and Montana Sen. Max Baucus (who announced after the vote he would not seek re-election) voted against the bill. The divide among these red state Democrats was reflective of individual state dynamics. Landrieu and Hagan represent states that voted for Romney in 2012 -- but which also include large urban areas where there is more concern about gun crime.

The Louisiana Democrat explained her vote as one that would “strengthen Second Amendment rights” for her constituents. “I'm confident that most people understand the importance of closing this loophole while preserving the rights of law-abiding individuals to own and use guns for hunting, sport and self-protection,” she said in a statement after the vote, noting that she also opposed bills to ban assault weapons and limit magazine sizes.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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