Mary Landrieu’s Career Depends on Winning a Numbers Game

For the Louisiana senator, 2014 will come down to turnout — and the math might not save her this time.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 10: Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) leaves the U.S. Capitol for a meeting with the rest of the Senate Democratic conference and U.S. President Barack Obama on the government shutdown and debt limit increase October 10, 2013 in Washington, DC. Speaker of the House John Boehner said earlier today that he is prepared to offer a short-term increase in the debt limit in a separate meeting later today with Obama. 
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Alex Roarty
Dec. 17, 2013, midnight

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.

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