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Facing Do-or-Die Runoff, Landrieu Goes on Offense

Facing Do-or-Die Runoff, Landrieu Goes on Offense

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - November 10, 2014

Mary Landrieu is the last Deep South Democrat standing after last week's midterm drubbing by the Republicans. But now that her party has withdrawn $2 million in advertising placements ahead of her Dec. 6 runoff against Rep. Bill Cassidy, “standing” may not be the operative term. “Teetering” might be more apt, especially since Landrieu has been left without what was her most salient selling point: possession of the Energy Committee gavel.

Now that Democrats have lost control of the Senate, Landrieu will lose her chairmanship. Throughout the campaign, her leadership of that powerful panel -- and how it benefits constituents in energy-rich Louisiana -- fueled the three-term senator’s assertion of influence on Capitol Hill. But in an election that proved to be a referendum on the Democratic president and the Washington status quo, the gavel may have been more of a liability than an asset, connecting Landrieu to the system voters wanted to change.

With the balance of power in the Senate decided, Landrieu is hoping to make this race less about Washington and more about Cassidy and Louisiana. And her campaign argues that the senator has been in this situation before, having survived a 2002 runoff after the GOP took control of the upper chamber. Friends and foes alike hardly mention Landrieu’s name without also using the words “fighter” or “tough.”

But this year looks different. George W. Bush was president-- and a popular one -- 12 years ago. Democrats argue Bush’s popularity then made Landrieu’s 2002 win all the more impressive. But Louisiana voters have never supported Obama, who has a 38 percent approval rate in the state, according to the RCP average. And because last week’s election was a rebuke of the president, the votes will be even harder for Landrieu to find this time.

“I don’t think she has had a tougher environment to run in before,” says Robert Mann, a professor at Louisiana State University and a former aide in the Sen. John Breaux. Mann points to white voters’ skepticism and dissatisfaction regarding Obama and Landrieu this year.

In 2008, he notes, she won 33 percent of the white vote. On Tuesday, she took only 18 percent. This key portion of the electorate wasn’t going to be swayed by Landrieu’s clout message, Mann said, because they were more concerned with sending a message about Obama. “People vote in a much more emotional and visceral way than this logical calculation on what’s better for my state,” he said.

Even though Democrats have already lost their majority, retaining the Louisiana seat would hold long-term benefits for them. The party is hoping to gain seats next cycle with a more favorable map and a new presidential candidate; a Pelican State loss this year would create an even steeper climb. And Landrieu has ground to make up: The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Cassidy ahead by 4.8 percentage points in a runoff.

Immediately after Tuesday’s race was called into overtime (though Landrieu narrowly topped Cassidy, neither candidate broke the 50 percent threshold to win outright), the Democratic senator shifted her strategy and went on the attack against the Republican, citing his stances on Social Security, Medicare and disaster relief funding.

“I’ve now worked with three presidents, four majority leaders, and six governors. I’ve worked through hurricanes, storms, floods, and tornados,” she said while touring neighborhoods hit by Hurricane Isaac in 2012. “We’ve built levees together, we’re building flood control systems. And when the going got tough, I stood up and delivered. But Bill Cassidy was nowhere.”

During a stop at the construction of a new VA hospital, Landrieu also accused her opponent of being absent in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But Cassidy had a reply. “Mary Landrieu wants to know where I was during Hurricane Katrina? Setting up a surge hospital for refugees,” he tweeted.

Cassidy moved quickly to consolidate Republican support in the state -- some of which had been siphoned off by Rob Maness -- and the national party is mobilizing on the congressman’s behalf. On Monday, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is joining Cassidy, Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. David Vitter and other state party leaders for a “unity rally” in Baton Rouge.

The shift in campaign focus reflects the dynamics of a two-way race rather than a so-called jungle primary. But Landrieu also knows Obama still looms over this race, a fact reflected in her argument that she has served under multiple presidents. And Democrats say Cassidy’s old message that voting out Landrieu would mean a Republican majority in the Senate has been rendered moot. “Cassidy can’t hide behind Harry Reid,” one party operative said.

Cassidy’s “more effective message is to keep this about Barack Obama,” said Mann. “If [his campaign] has got anything to worry about, it’s that Republicans’ anger dissipates a little bit because they have already poked Obama in the eye, and Democrats have already been vanquished in the Senate.”

But as much as Landrieu is training her sights on the congressman, she hasn’t completely given up on the Washington-influence angle. Supporters say the senator’s Energy Committee strategy isn’t lost; specifically, she can make a case that having a ranking member from Louisiana is better than one from Washington state (Maria Cantwell would be in line for that position if Landrieu loses). In a new ad that began airing during Sunday’s New Orleans Saint game, the incumbent’s campaign features footage of Cassidy stumbling over part of a speech at the Republican Leadership Conference. The narrator asks, “We'd lose Mary Landrieu's clout ... for this?”

But more importantly, the imperiled lawmaker has to shift this race away from Obama and toward her home turf, a tall order that doomed her fellow red state Democrats this year.

 

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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