In Louisiana Runoff Election, Senator Landrieu Tries to Revive Her Base
SENATOR LANDRIEU HAMMOND, La. — She has been rebuffed by her liberal colleagues in Washington and pilloried at home for voting with the president, and has watched helplessly while her Democratic base has eroded like a cheap levee.
These are hard times for Mary L. Landrieu, the last Deep South Democrat in the United States Senate.
But on the cusp of a Saturday runoff election that feels as much like a race against history as against a Republican opponent, Ms. Landrieu has been barnstorming around her home state on what she called her “Louisiana First Victory Tour,” hugging, kissing and cajoling voters with an argument that has served her well for the 18 years she has been in the Senate.
On the stump, Ms. Landrieu, 59, has long made it clear that her party affiliation took a back seat to her professed role as Louisiana’s essential envoy to Washington, attuned to the state’s peculiar cultural quirks and federal needs, from oil-patch policy to flood protection.
On Tuesday afternoon in Hammond, a city of 20,000 north of Lake Pontchartrain, she told a small crowd that the November elections had been about choosing which party should be in charge of Congress.
“That has been decided now,” she said. “But what is still left to be decided is who is best qualified to represent this state for six more years in the United States Senate.”
At risk is not only her Senate seat, which is being contested byRepresentative Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Baton Rouge, but a family dynasty dating back to her father, Moon Landrieu, a former mayor of New Orleans. There is also a sense that the black-white coalition that moderate Democrats like Ms. Landrieu once forged to win statewide office here may be fading into history.
The rise of the first black president helped accelerate the white migration to the Republicans, which was reflected in the Republican tide that swept away many surviving Democratic officeholders across the South in November. And Louisiana lost a hefty chunk of its black population after Hurricane Katrina. Ms. Landrieu was the top vote-getter in Louisiana’s nonpartisan primary in November. But Mr. Cassidy, a 57-year-old doctor, has hewed closely to his party’s recent strategy of nationalizing congressional elections. He and outside spending groups have reminded voters that Ms. Landrieu voted with President Obama 97 percent of the time. They have also criticized her for voting in favor of the Affordable Care Act, characterizing it as the “deciding vote for Obamacare.”
But other numbers are just as ominous for Ms. Landrieu. Elliott Stonecipher, a political analyst in Shreveport, La., said that the growing degree to which whites have become Republicans and the loss of an estimated 125,000 Democratic voters after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 meant that Democrats now represented about 47 percent of Louisiana’s overall voter registration, compared to more than 60 percent in 2000.
Ms. Landrieu was able to overcome that problem in 2008 in part because of Mr. Obama’s presence on the ticket and the lift it gave to Democratic turnout, Mr. Stonecipher said. But this time, Ms. Landrieu is alone.
“She has literally been watching the power of her political brand disappear,” he said.
While Ms. Landrieu beat Mr. Cassidy by 16,000 votes in the primary, a second conservative candidate, Rob Maness, garnered more than 200,000 votes in the contest. Mr. Maness has since endorsed Mr. Cassidy.
Ms. Landrieu’s appearance in Hammond underscored the fealty she still commands in some quarters: The crowd was thick with local officials who testified that the federal money she delivered helped build the local airport’s control tower and improve the local wastewater system.
But for many voters, those achievements are not as important as the damage that they believe the Democratic Party is doing in Washington.
Before she headed to Hammond on Tuesday, Ms. Landrieu stopped in the working-class New Orleans suburb of Gretna. There, a group of white, retired gas company workers were sitting in a coffee shop on Huey P. Long Avenue, ignoring the rally that Ms. Landrieu’s team was preparing.
“I think Mary Landrieu is just following the lead of the Democrats,” said John Murphy, 78, one of the men drinking coffee. “It was her vote that decided Obamacare. And that just ticked me off.”
Conrad Lawrence, 78, another in the group, said that he, too, was voting for Mr. Cassidy, even though Mr. Lawrence said that he was still a registered Democrat and had voted for many Democrats in the past — including Ms. Landrieu. But the party had become too liberal for him.
“My daddy would turn over in his grave if he knew I voted for a Republican,” he said.
Ms. Landrieu’s father directed the desegregation of New Orleans city government in the 1970s. Ms. Landrieu and her brother Mitch, the current mayor, are seen by many blacks as inheritors of his legacy.
That has come at a certain political cost. Joe Ortolano, another one of the men in the coffee shop, said the Landrieu clan had created an environment where “everything catered to the black.”
But Mr. Obama also presents a specific problem for Ms. Landrieu, said Roy Fletcher, a political consultant in Baton Rouge. Moving too far away from Mr. Obama’s agenda, he said, would have meant alienating the base of African-Americans Ms. Landrieu needs to win.
Black voters, Mr. Fletcher said, “are so wedded to the Obama thing that they would not allow her to maneuver.”
They will need to turn out in tremendous numbers if Ms. Landrieu is to have a chance. Since the general election, prominent African-Americans including Stevie Wonder and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey have come to Louisiana to campaign for Ms. Landrieu, but some experts here say it’s hard to envision a black turnout so big that it could save her.
Last month, Ms. Landrieu, one of the staunchest allies of the oil industry in Congress, tried to shore up support back home by leading an unsuccessful effort to pass a bill approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline. She was unable to persuade enough Democrats, particularly liberal ones, to vote for it, and this week, radio ads supporting Mr. Cassidy referred to the strategy as a “Fail Mary.”
At the Gretna rally, held a few feet from the levees of the Mississippi River, Ms. Landrieu alluded to the 2006 law she helped pass that gave Louisiana a greater share of offshore oil and gas revenue, some of which would be used for hurricane protection and coastal restoration projects.
In recent days, she has attacked Mr. Cassidy, accusing him of receiving thousands of dollars from Louisiana State University for medical work that she says he did not do.
Officials at L.S.U. say they are reviewing the matter, but Ms. Landrieu has eagerly battered her opponent about it in television ads and in person.
In a debate Monday, Mr. Cassidy defended his work and shot back at Ms. Landrieu, noting that she had repeatedly billed taxpayers for political trips, a mistake she has admitted and chalked it up to “sloppy bookkeeping.”
Mr. Cassidy said, “When I treat patients in the public hospital system, clearly those patients benefit. When she takes chartered jets on taxpayer dime to campaign events, who is it that benefits?”
On Wednesday night in Shreveport, Mr. Cassidy, who was elected to Congress in 2009, skipped his own campaign event at the last minute. In a statement, his campaign said he was needed in Washington to cast votes.
The rally, at a local Baptist church, went on anyway. A mostly white crowd packed the pews, and there was little talk of oil and gas policy or hurricane protection. Instead, Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, spoke of the “lawlessness coming out of the White House.”
Faye Grafton, 80, of Haughton, La., said that she didn’t know too much about Mr. Cassidy, but that it really didn’t matter.
“We just need to get rid of Mary,” she said.