How Mary Landrieu’s Escaping Her Democratic Shadow

Senator Mary Landrieu (C), D-LA, speaks during a a press conference on the Keystone XL pipeline in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on February 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. Looking on are (from left): Senator Joe Manchin, D-WV, and Canada's Ambassador to the US Gary Doer. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
June 10, 2014, 1:20 a.m.

PORT FOURCHON, La. — Mary Landrieu isn’t shy about flex­ing her polit­ic­al muscle, and she loves to do it on be­half of her home state’s oil in­dustry.

That muscle was on full dis­play here last month as the sen­at­or showed off the hub of her home state’s Gulf of Mex­ico drilling activ­ity to no less than En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz.

“I think he’s been suf­fi­ciently im­pressed with what we have here to of­fer not just the coun­try, but the world,” Landrieu said, call­ing it “thrill­ing” to be able to show off “this ex­traordin­ary little port that’s do­ing it all for Amer­ic­an en­ergy.”

But Landrieu’s ties to the in­dustry go way past vic­tory laps and photo ops. She has had the in­dustry’s back at every con­gres­sion­al turn, even when that meant buck­ing her party — or rip­ping Pres­id­ent Obama. And now, years of de­fend­ing the oil lobby as well as a power­ful perch atop the Sen­ate’s En­ergy pan­el ap­pear to be pay­ing di­vidends in the Demo­crat’s hour of need.

The oil in­dustry would much prefer that Re­pub­lic­ans con­trolled the Sen­ate, and Landrieu los­ing her tough reelec­tion cam­paign would go a long way to­ward mak­ing that hap­pen. But even with the Sen­ate po­ten­tially hanging in the bal­ance, and even after Obama in­furi­ated the in­dustry with new cli­mate rules, the in­dustry is stick­ing with Landrieu.

Landrieu has net­ted more than $547,000 this cycle from the oil and gas lobby in the 2014 cycle, ac­cord­ing to data from the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics. Between in­di­vidu­al and PAC con­tri­bu­tions, Cali­for­nia-based Sem­pra En­ergy has giv­en her $47,500, while NRG En­ergy has chipped in nearly $46,000. The Amer­ic­an Pet­ro­leum In­sti­tute PAC has even giv­en $6,000, the most for any in­di­vidu­al can­did­ate.

That’s more than double the haul drawn by her chal­lenger, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Bill Cas­sidy. Cas­sidy has been on the re­ceiv­ing end of $203,000 in in­dustry fund­ing, which in­cludes nearly $18,000 from Mur­ray En­ergy and $10,000 from Koch In­dus­tries.

So how is Landrieu do­ing it?

Landrieu’s rise to the top of the En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee, where she can over­see the in­dustry that drives much of the eco­nomy in her state, has been key. She’s been play­ing up just how im­port­ant that role is; an April cam­paign ad fea­tur­ing nar­ra­tion by ship­build­er Boysie Bollinger states, “Louisi­ana can’t af­ford to lose Mary Landrieu.”

She’s also been a re­li­able op­pon­ent of the White House’s cli­mate agenda: Just Monday, she took to a coal plant in her home state to blast the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed emis­sion reg­u­la­tions.

In an email, Sem­pra spokes­man Doug Kline said the com­pany sup­ports “can­did­ates who share our views about ef­fect­ive pub­lic policy and pos­it­ive eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment” and that it had a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Landrieu.

But the in­dustry sup­port comes as the Landrieu-Cas­sidy race could play a role in the bal­ance of the Sen­ate, a po­ten­tially big­ger prize in the en­ergy world. Re­pub­lic­ans have vowed to make en­ergy a pri­or­ity if they re­take the Sen­ate, an agenda sure to in­clude bills that would re­strict or kill En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency reg­u­la­tions. In an in­ter­view on C-SPAN’s News­makers last week­end, Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an Policy Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Bar­rasso said is­sues like the Key­stone XL pipeline and nat­ur­al-gas ex­ports offered a “huge op­por­tun­ity” for a Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate.

And while Demo­crats haven’t done much to pro­mote the en­vir­on­ment with their ma­jor­ity, they have beaten back ef­forts they say would harm the cli­mate. That in­cluded a Landrieu-led ef­fort to get a vote ap­prov­ing Key­stone, a fail­ure she blamed on Re­pub­lic­ans.

But op­pon­ents are point­ing out that those fail­ures weak­en her mes­sage of polit­ic­al clout and it’s led her to lose a po­ten­tially power­ful ally at home. Don Briggs, the head of the Louisi­ana Oil and Gas As­so­ci­ation, is back­ing Cas­sidy in what is es­sen­tially a proxy vote against Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id.

“I know Mary very well and I’ve al­ways sup­por­ted her per­son­ally,” said Briggs, who is en­dors­ing Cas­sidy per­son­ally and not on be­half of the trade group. “But chan­ging the Sen­ate to me is the big pic­ture. The [En­ergy chair­man­ship] isn’t very valu­able if you can’t do any­thing with it.”

On en­ergy is­sues, there’s ul­ti­mately not a big gulf between Cas­sidy and Landrieu. Roy Fletch­er, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist in Louisi­ana, said that en­ergy wouldn’t serve as a wedge between the two can­did­ates, but rather would al­low Landrieu to sep­ar­ate her­self more from the White House.

“It’s an is­sue that Landrieu uses as a way to say that she’s not Obama,” said Fletch­er, who is not af­fil­i­ated with the Cas­sidy cam­paign. “Fun­da­ment­ally that’s what this race is about any­ways.”

On the flip side, even en­vir­on­ment­al­ists who would stand to lose if Re­pub­lic­ans took con­trol haven’t been do­ing much to keep Landrieu in. Un­like the races de­fend­ing, say, Kay Hagan in North Car­o­lina or Tom Ud­all in Col­or­ado, green groups have largely stayed out of Louisi­ana. She hasn’t garnered en­dorse­ments from the groups and has only pulled in $2,500 from the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Ac­tion Fund PAC, which is sup­port­ing her work on coastal res­tor­a­tion.

“Our the­ory of change is that we need an en­vir­on­ment­al ma­jor­ity,” said Heath­er Taylor-Miesle, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the NRDC Ac­tion Fund. “I don’t see a world we we get in­to that race. It’s not one that we pri­or­it­ize. I re­spect people who say that we have to keep the Sen­ate at all costs and there’s no ques­tion that Harry Re­id is a bet­ter lead­er on en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues than Mitch Mc­Con­nell, but we have to make choices of who we’re go­ing to pri­or­it­ize.”

It’s easy to point fin­gers on a na­tion­al level, but that doesn’t do much for the en­vir­on­ment­al­ists in the state who ac­tu­ally have to pull a lever for someone. They’re faced with the real­ity of hav­ing to hold their nose and vote for a can­did­ate they may not like to pro­tect what they see as the great­er good.

“We don’t have a lot of choice,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Si­erra Club’s New Or­leans chapter. “The Sen­ate race, that’s just tied up in na­tion­al polit­ics. We’re not go­ing to en­dorse any can­did­ate in that race, but I don’t want Re­pub­lic­ans con­trolling the Sen­ate. That’s my per­son­al opin­ion.”

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