Why Mary Landrieu Could Wish for a GOP Senate Takeover

Republican gains could boost the Democrat’s chances of reelection under Louisiana’s odd electoral system.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 22: U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) (2nd L) talks with a reporter outside the Senate chamber, on Capitol Hill March 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate is scheduled to vote on amendments to the budget resolution on Friday afternoon and into the evening. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
May 4, 2014, 6:02 a.m.

To save her Sen­ate seat in Louisi­ana, Mary Landrieu may secretly be root­ing for Re­pub­lic­ans to re­take the up­per cham­ber.

That might sound coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive, but it’s a real­ity strategists are mulling as they face the grow­ing like­li­hood that Landrieu won’t reach the 50 per­cent ne­ces­sary in the Novem­ber all-party primary to win reelec­tion out­right. Un­der Louisi­ana’s odd elec­tion rules, that would mean the race heads in­to a second round, a Dec. 6 run­off, to de­term­ine who wins the closely con­tested seat.

There’s a real chance that Re­pub­lic­ans could net five Sen­ate seats be­fore the run­off would take place, mak­ing Louisi­ana’s con­test the one that de­cides which party con­trols the Sen­ate. For Landrieu, that kind of high-stakes run­off could help her mo­bil­ize core Demo­crat­ic con­stitu­en­cies, par­tic­u­larly Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters. But it would also tur­bocharge an already-ir­rit­ated GOP base, na­tion­al­iz­ing the elec­tion in a solidly-Re­pub­lic­an state.

If Elec­tion Day in Novem­ber puts the Sen­ate firmly in Re­pub­lic­an hands, en­thu­si­asm among Louisi­ana’s GOP voters might wane. It also could mean Landrieu’s ar­gu­ment that she’s a rare mod­er­ate voice re­strain­ing the ex­cesses of her party res­on­ates more, es­pe­cially as Re­pub­lic­ans re­cog­nize their small up­per-cham­ber ma­jor­ity will re­quire Demo­crat­ic al­lies to see le­gis­la­tion passed.

“If Re­pub­lic­ans have con­trol of the Sen­ate, that will work to her ad­vant­age. She can then play even more that she’s con­trari­an to the people in Wash­ing­ton,” said Demo­crat­ic strategist John Row­ley, who has ex­tens­ive ex­per­i­ence work­ing on con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns in Louisi­ana. “That’s what she did in 2002. I can see that be­ing an ad­vant­age. To win a race like this, you need to be good, hope your Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger makes an er­ror, and you need some good for­tune. That could be her good for­tune.”

Neither Landrieu’s cam­paign nor the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee is pub­licly en­ter­tain­ing the pos­sib­il­ity of the race go­ing in­to over­time, or the like­li­hood of Louisi­ana be­com­ing the de­cis­ive race in the battle for the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity. Landrieu cam­paign spokes­man An­drew Zuck­er de­clared he’s con­fid­ent she’ll win 50 per­cent out­right, and won’t even need a run­off. “We’re just not think­ing about that six months out,” he said. (She’s far from that mark in cur­rent polling, and she’s needed run­offs to win in two of her last three elec­tions.)

Mean­while, na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans in­volved in the race aren’t eager to call Louisi­ana clutch either. “It would shock me if it was a de­term­in­at­ive race. I either think we win eight-plus seats or 5 or less,” said one GOP strategist track­ing the cam­paign.

But strategists with a little less skin in the game aren’t so con­fid­ent. Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Neil Ne­w­house floated the pos­sib­il­ity of Louisi­ana be­ing the tie-break­er race at a bi­par­tis­an pan­el sponsored by The Wall Street Journ­al last Wed­nes­day. “I think you may see ‘con­trol of the Sen­ate’ mes­saging used by both R’s and D’s in late com­mu­nic­a­tions to their base voters. Louisi­ana would be no ex­cep­tion,” Ne­w­house later said.

In 2002, Landrieu faced a sim­il­ar dy­nam­ic. Be­fore Novem­ber, con­trol of the Sen­ate hung in the bal­ance — and her seat held the pro­spect of be­ing the ma­jor­ity-maker. But Re­pub­lic­ans swept to a ma­jor­ity, and the cor­res­pond­ing run­off didn’t draw nearly as much na­tion­al at­ten­tion. Landrieu greatly be­nefited from that dy­nam­ic, and without a ral­ly­ing cry, Re­pub­lic­an turnout di­min­ished. After win­ning only 46 per­cent of the vote in the Novem­ber elec­tion, Landrieu’s share of the vote jumped 6 points, to 52 per­cent in the cor­res­pond­ing run­off against Re­pub­lic­an Su­z­anne Haik Ter­rell.

Landrieu, if any­thing, is sens­it­ive to the chan­ging pub­lic mood from a gen­er­al elec­tion to a Decem­ber run­off. In 2002, to win Re­pub­lic­an cros­sov­er voters, she aired ads in Septem­ber that ref­er­enced her con­struct­ive re­la­tion­ship with George W. Bush. Once Re­pub­lic­ans won the Sen­ate, her run­off ads re­ferred to her as a check-and-bal­ance to the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Re­pub­lic­an strategist Brad Todd, who is work­ing for Landrieu’s lead­ing GOP chal­lenger, Rep. Bill Cas­sidy, ac­know­ledged that she’s been suc­cess­ful when the stakes are lower.

“Mary has suc­ceeded when she can get a race all about Mary,” Todd said. “But if the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity rests on Mary Landrieu’s elec­tion, there is no pos­sible way she is a United States sen­at­or in Janu­ary.”

He ad­ded the state’s strong anti-Obama sen­ti­ment this year still makes it harder for her to rep­lic­ate her 2002 suc­cess. Her past reelec­tion cam­paigns both took place when Bush was in the White House.

Pub­lic polling has shown Landrieu among the most vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents. A Kais­er Fam­ily Found­a­tion/New York Times poll con­duc­ted in April showed her win­ning just 42 per­cent of the vote in an all-party primary, with her ap­prov­al rat­ing barely above wa­ter, at 49 per­cent. In Feb­ru­ary, the Demo­crat­ic firm Hick­man Ana­lyt­ics found Cas­sidy lead­ing Landrieu in a hy­po­thet­ic­al run­off, 46 to 42 per­cent, with her un­fa­vor­able rat­ing 10 points high­er than her fa­vor­able num­bers.

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