BATON ROUGE, Louisiana—Imagine paying insurance on a beach house and then canceling the policy a couple months before hurricane season. That is Sen. Mary Landrieu’s election-eve message, both figuratively and literally. “Who will be here for us if there is another Katrina?” asked state Sen. Ben Nevers at a Monday rally for Landrieu in Baton Rouge that featured Bill Clinton. Landrieu ticks off the names of the hurricanes that have hit the state in her stump speech. Another storm will come, and voters shouldn’t trade away her proven ability to fight for relief in the aftermath. After nearly 18 years in office, the senior Louisiana senator is now chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is why she says she can deliver for the state’s sizable oil and gas interests. “If my opponent wins, we’ll lose that gavel,” she told a rally earlier in the day. Later she boomed, “He won’t even be on the committee.” When making the case for her campaign, a Democratic political operative boasted about the money she receives from oil and gas interests. (Usually campaigns try to hide the influence purchasing.) She’s also warning seniors that after paying into Social Security for decades, they might lose some of their benefits if her opponent, three-term Rep. Bill Cassidy, makes the changes he’d like to make to the program.
The race in Louisiana is perhaps the best 2014 test of the old campaign adage that candidates and campaigns matter. It’s usually something the underdog says to get past conversations about how bad the environment is for a candidate of his or her party. In a bad year for Democrats—hampered further by an unpopular president—Landrieu’s platform of seniority, Social Security, and sandbags is about the strongest bulwark of any being erected by vulnerable Democratic incumbents. She’s also a tough campaigner who comes from a popular political family. Despite all those advantages, she is still struggling, down by four points in the average of polls. That’s because President Obama lost Louisiana by 18 points, and even in a state that benefits from federal largess, members of Congress are not popular. Landrieu is the Democrats’ last remaining statewide elected official. Campaigns may matter, but some disadvantages are too great to overcome.
Of all the incumbent Democrats in trouble, Landrieu has served the longest. When she took the stage at the Crowne Plaza on Monday, it was obvious she had been in the game a long time, as she went through the interminable process of introducing supporters, local officials, and family members who had backed her during her nearly two decades in the Senate. Organizers said 900 people had showed up to sit at tables of eight, each festooned with a cluster of gold and blue helium balloons that made it hard to see the woman in turquoise who sounded like the candidate. The audience was mostly women, whom Landrieu repeatedly referred to as “ladies.” She repeated the phrase the way some people repeatedly touch your arm in conversation. “Ladies, there is a lot at stake,” and “Ladies, we’re building energy jobs that pay our kids coming out of high school $70,000 and $80,000 a year.”
Landrieu has jokingly referred to herself as “Landslide Landrieu,” because she has faced so many close races. She recounted that history to the audience to remind them that every vote counts. “I stepped up to run for the Senate, and we beat—all of us in this room—we beat Woody Jenkins by 5,778 votes out of 1.7 million votes cast,” she said, referring to her conservative Republican opponent. “Ladies, that is 1.2 votes per precinct. You sent me there, and let me tell you what happened just a few years late: Katrina and Rita slammed in to South Louisiana and sent a million people homeless, including half of my family and families in here, who never thought they’d experience homelessness in their life. And you know who was in that seat when that happened? Think about the difference between Mary Landrieu—and I know I have my flaws and my weaknesses—but think about having to go to Woody Jenkins to ask Woody Jenkins to help New Orleans. Baton Rouge, do you have any concept the difference it made? And I made the difference because I was there, but you made the difference by putting me there.”
At the next event, as local politicians and labor leaders praised Landrieu to a crowd gathered to hear Bill Clinton, Hurricane Katrina came up again and again. “When the hurricane hit and she had to battle everybody, she stood up and showed up and fought and she delivered,” said her younger brother, Mitch Landrieu, the popular mayor of New Orleans. “New Orleans, the whole southern part of Louisiana, would not be where it is today if she had not fought.”
In a focus group of New Orleans female voters later that night, part of the Walmart Moms series (female voters selected because they have children age 18 or younger and shopped at Walmart at least once in the past month), several women used Katrina as a reference point when talking about their economic anxieties.
The next day Landrieu was issuing new dire warnings to a group of seniors gathered in the windowless community room at the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging. She was there to kick off a day of stops throughout the state publicizing her endorsement by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. As the group’s director outlined the difference between the score they had given Landrieu (100 percent) and her opponent (0 percent, or “minus zero” as one elderly woman yelled), the candidate reacted in horror to each description of her opponent’s votes, throwing up her hands, shaking her head like she was being attacked by a bee, and at one point covering her eyes.
The audience of almost entirely black seniors was just as active, interjecting “amens” at key moments and affirming every statement with applause or a groan or some other verbal sign of agreement. When Landrieu polled the group for who had earned the least in their lifetimes, one man reported making 25 cents an hour at the Baton Rouge General. “Do you think we owe this man our best work?” she asked to applause.
Democrats had hoped to register 120,000 new black voters at the start of the campaign. They represent 30 percent of the state’s electorate, and their turnout may be the difference for Landrieu. That’s why Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, joined Landrieu on the campaign trail. “If I came from Ohio, you can go up the block and vote,” she said. The campaign says that more blacks are registered to vote than in 2012.
Landrieu’s opponent, Bill Cassidy, has been described as a “generic Republican,” holding conservative positions but running a cautious campaign, unlike Reps. Tom Cotton in Arkansas and Cory Gardner in Colorado, or other House members running for the Senate who have been more aggressive on the stump.
A doctor, Cassidy is not a part of the state’s colorful tradition of lawmakers, which includes his backer, Sen. David Vitter, whose longtime patronage of a prostitution ring was discovered in 2002. On the congressional ballot this year is convicted felon and former Gov. Edwin Edwards, a Democrat, and the “kissing congressman” Vance McAllister, a Republican, who was caught on CCTV in an amorous embrace with a staffer and decided to run for re-election anyway.
However bland Cassidy may be—he apologizes for all the TV ads when meeting new voters—Landrieu was doing her best to screw devil’s horns on his head. Cassidy has spent his entire career caring for people who have little or no insurance. After Hurricane Katrina, he organized hundreds of volunteers to help turn an abandoned Baton Rouge K-Mart into a temporary medical center. He says that experience is what led him into public service. Yet this is how Landrieu described him as she recounted his support for raising the retirement age for Social Security: “Bill Cassidy lives in a big fancy house right on Lakeshore Drive. You know how he paid for that house? Medicaid! He was a Medicaid doctor. It paid him a lot of money. He took those big checks and built a big house, and he wants to go to Washington and take your check away from you. Oh my God!”
Landrieu also has house issues. She is being criticized for claiming her parents’ house as her residency and living in a multimillion-dollar home in Washington. The house is a topic of a series of ads being run by Karl Rove’s super PAC American Crossroads. Landrieu has also been on the defensive from Cassidy’s claims that it is Landrieu who cut Medicare when she voted in 2010 for the Affordable Care Act, which reduced payments for private policies under the Medicare Advantage program.
If no candidate reaches 50 percent in Louisiana, there will be a runoff. In Washington, Democratic strategists assume the race is headed for that outcome, which will make the state a zoo (book your hotel rooms now!) if the runoff winds up determining which party controls the Senate. Landrieu’s team assumes Republicans are playing for the recount so that Cassidy, who faces a challenge from the right in the multicandidate field, can consolidate Republican votes when there are just two candidates. “We are not going to go to a runoff,” Landrieu assures audiences. One local Democratic official wouldn’t even speak of a runoff as if it were some Voodoo hex. But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has reserved $2.1 million of television time for the one month period between Election Day and the runoff election. It’s always good to have a little insurance.