Politics are turning upside down in the Louisiana Senate race, where Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu finds herself under attack from a deep-pocketed and well-connected environmentalist.
Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge-fund investor turned environmental activist, may launch an advertising campaign panning Landrieu for supporting the Keystone XL pipeline. The three-term senator seeking reelection in a state much redder than it was six years ago says Steyer's criticism could actually help her win.
"It would probably help me in my state if he would run his ads," Landrieu said in an interview shortly after taking the gavel to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week. Her thinking is that voters who live in a state dependent on oil and natural gas like Louisiana would like a candidate more if she's facing criticism from the environmental Left for supporting a project that would foster more petroleum-related energy production, which the 1,700-mile cross-border pipeline would do.
Republicans, who see winning Louisiana as a key step in their quest to regain control of the Senate, are spinning it the other way. Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says that Steyer could actually end up helping Landrieu's main GOP challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, win the race.
"Having a couple million dollars saying you're doing the wrong thing on the environment are dog-whistle ads," Collins said in an interview. "People who care about the environment will hear it, and those who don't will miss it." That means, Collins concluded, environment-minded voters may stay at home, instead of voting for Landrieu, whom they're "predisposed" to vote for initially. "It may not show up in the pro-Cassidy vote, but it could have the effect of vote-compressing" on Landrieu's side, Collins said.
As for Landrieu's line of thinking — that Steyer could actually help her win — Collins said: "I could see the logic. I don't think it actually bears out."
Brian Willis, a spokesman representing Steyer's super PAC, NextGen Climate, declined to comment for this story. He also wouldn't confirm when Steyer will decide whether to target Landrieu.
Touting a website earlier this month, Steyer's group is calling on Internet users to help choose a candidate for the group to target in its next TV ad. Others on the list to choose from include three Senate hopefuls: Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds of South Dakota; and Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga. Another potential target is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is up for reelection in 2016.
Steyer's previous efforts include campaigns criticizing the opponents of now-Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Democratic now-Gov. Terry McAullife of Virginia.
As the first and so far only Democrat in Steyer's line of fire this year, Landrieu is the most interesting — and riskiest — potential target he's considered yet. Steyer isn't the only billionaire targeting Louisiana's senior senator though.
Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has already spent $2.6 million against her, focusing mostly on her support for President Obama's health care law.
"I have billionaires on both sides, and I'm exactly where I should be, which is right in the middle," Landrieu said. "I don't think people are eventually going to pay a lot of attention to these billionaires on both sides."
The Keystone XL pipeline would send more than 700,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada's tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. The southern part of the project is already operating, but the top half needs approval from the Obama administration to cross the Canada-U.S. border. It's been pending at the State Department for more than five years. A final decision could come as soon as this spring or summer.