The two most important numbers for Mary Landrieu's reelection campaign are 29 and 33. In 2008, she won a third term in the U.S. Senate when Louisiana's electorate was 29 percent black and 33 percent of its white voters voted Democrat. The combination lifted Landrieu to a 6-point victory over her Republican foe, a veritable blowout in the deeply conservative Bayou State.
Driving up black turnout while holding down the GOP's margin with white voters is about the only way a Southern Democrat like Landrieu can earn a return trip to the Senate. And next year, that already narrow path will have shrunk considerably. A midterm means the state's electorate will be whiter than the one she faced in 2008—that was always a given. But the disastrous Obamacare rollout poses a far more daunting threat, one that will flummox her with white and black voters alike. That's because two goals are in tension with each other: She needs to embrace the health care law to boost minority turnout, but every moment she embraces it could cost her with white voters.
Although Landrieu doesn't quite need to match 2008's performance, she can't stray far from it. Making sure she doesn't will be the toughest test of the veteran politician's career.
Most would contend that of all the candidates under threat of losing their seat in 2014, Landrieu is the best equipped to handle the challenge. Her unapologetic advocacy for the oil and gas industry, her Cajun-inflected outspokenness, and—most of all—her family's deep lineage in the state make her a political throwback, one of the few remaining Southern Democratic populists left in the Senate. Landrieu's father, Moon Landrieu, was a legendary mayor of New Orleans, a position her brother, Mitch, currently fills.
Even Republicans hold her abilities as a politician in high regard, usually as they explain how she's managed to thrice win election in a state hostile to Democrats. "She grew up literally nurtured on politics," said Billy Tauzin, a Democrat-turned-Republican from Louisiana who used to serve in the House. "And with a family like that, you would expect Mary absorbed what many consider to be a great deal of political acumen."
But even her history shows Landrieu's vulnerability. She's never won more than 52 percent of the vote, and twice—in 1996 and 2002—she had to win in a runoff. (Louisiana doesn't hold primaries; instead, all candidates run in a single race for Election Day, and if none finishes with 50 percent of the vote, the top two advance to a runoff). And now Landrieu has to run in a state not only more conservative than when it first sent her to Washington 18 years ago, but where Obamacare alienates large swaths of the electorate.
"We now have a situation where you have an unpopular president on the downside and a senator who has no independence from him," said Brad Todd, a GOP consultant who twice worked on campaigns against the senator. "Mary is a tough campaigner, she campaigns vigorously, she's charismatic, she's experienced at tough races. However, she has never had to run with an anvil around her neck. She will have to do that this time."
Landrieu's own position on Obamacare reflects the tension between competing demands. Earlier this year, she gave the Affordable Care Act a bear hug. She repeatedly said she would vote for the measure again, and even went so far as to say in August she was "embarrassed" when she visits Europe because countries there offer guaranteed health insurance to all their citizens.
But since the rollout and the maelstrom of negative coverage surrounding Obamacare, her tone has changed. Landrieu still says she'd vote for it again, but of late she's vocally criticized parts of the legislation—the senator offered a bill that would allow Americans whose insurance plans were canceled to retain their existing coverage. That effort was capped this week, when Landrieu's campaign released her first TV ad of the cycle highlighting her fight to let people keep their coverage.
Republicans snicker that the conflict was most evident in November, when President Obama flew to New Orleans to deliver a speech. Landrieu grabbed a ride with Obama aboard Air Force One, but declined to appear with the president. Afterward, she complained when reporters suggested she was ducking her party's leader because of his deep unpopularity in the state.
That's the conflict that occurs when you have to motivate your base while winning over swing voters, and Landrieu operatives acknowledge the dilemma. But they point out that even if she's critical of Obamacare, she always does so respectfully. And they think other initiatives will boost African-American turnout, such as her family's deep tradition of civil-rights advocacy and her effort to reduce the cost of federal loans to historically black colleges and universities. She's done it before, they argue, and she'll do it again.
Maybe. But 2014 will be harder than before.
This article appears in the December 14, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Numbers Game.