Sen. Mary L. Landrieu has one message for the Republicans salivating over her seat in 2014: Bring it on.
She’s never had an easy race, but the Democrat’s third re-election fight looks daunting in a post-earmark, post-health care law era.
Louisiana has grown more Republican, the midterm electorate is less favorable to her than a presidential electorate, and she’s voted 97 percent with President Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular in the Pelican State.
The president took just 41 percent there last month, and Landrieu is the only statewide elected Democratic official.
But the senator starts out with some real advantages. The Landrieu brand is strong in the state: Her father was mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s, and her brother, Mitch Landrieu, is the current mayor of the Big Easy. Republican contenders will probably be locked in a long battle to take her on. And she has a clear argument to make to voters: She has a record of putting Louisiana first, no matter what.
Landrieu said voters want someone who can work across the aisle with presidents of either party to get results.
“That is truly what my election is going to be determined on — is my record of effectiveness on behalf of the people of Louisiana,” Landrieu said in an interview. “Frankly, I’d put my record up against anyone that has ever represented the state in the United States Senate.”
But voters may not end up casting ballots in a referendum on her effectiveness. If Republicans have their way, voters will be making a choice between a Democrat who votes with her party most of the time or a Republican who votes a more conservative line.
“In the past, Louisiana has overlooked her more liberal voting record because she has been good at bringing in dollars to the state. But you’re entering a new world,” said Timmy Teepell, a Louisiana Republican operative who served as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief of staff during his first term. He said in a post-earmark era in which the ability of Landrieu to bring home federal dollars is limited, “it makes it awfully tough for people to overlook her liberal voting record.”
Pelican State political hands repeatedly mentioned her vote in favor of “Obamacare” as one of Landrieu’s biggest hurdles.
“If she wouldn’t have voted for the health care, she would have a decent chance for re-election,” said longtime Louisiana pollster Bernie Pinsonat, who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans. “I’m not saying she can’t get re-elected, but ...” he trailed off.
While Republicans plan to put her vote in favor of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act front and center in the campaign, Landrieu is ready to frame the health care law as an asset.
“What I am going to say is I am very proud of the affordable health care act. Very proud that I voted for it,” she said. “I am looking forward to this debate very offensively. I am not the least bit defensive about this and cannot wait to explain to the people of my state why this is so much better than what they’ve been going through the last 10 years.”
Landrieu will indeed need to do a lot of explaining on health care in an increasingly red state. “Democrats are dying in Louisiana,” Pinsonat added.
The statehouse and state Senate are both controlled by Republicans, who increased their edge in 2011. Only one Pelican State congressman is a Democrat: Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, who represents a heavily Democratic majority-minority district.
“People in Louisiana are proud of her because she fights for Louisiana,” Richmond said. “It doesn’t matter what side she’s on, she gets it done.”
The way Louisiana elections work, she may have some time to sell that message to her constituents while Republicans battle it out.
Under the state’s “jungle primary” law, Landrieu will be on the November 2014 ballot with all her Republican challengers and challengers from other parties, too. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, the top two finishers head to a runoff. Given that unique system, it behooves the GOP to rally behind one candidate.
Insiders said a GOP consensus has already begun to emerge: Rep. Bill Cassidy.
“If I had to guess,” one unaligned Louisiana Republican operative said, “everybody would line up behind him as the best chance to beat Mary.”
“Assuming he runs against her, Bill Cassidy will be the strongest opponent she’s faced,” said nonpartisan Louisiana political analyst John Maginnis, who runs LaPolitics.com. “She’s run against some people who are very hard right or are a little scary, but Cassidy is not.”
“He’s really a centrist guy — charity hospital doctor,” Maginnis explained.
Cassidy worked for years at a hospital for the uninsured. A board-certified gastroenterologist, he still practices medicine on weekdays when he’s back in the district.
Cassidy’s office said the congressman remains focused on his current job.
If he decides to run, it’s far from clear that Cassidy would get a clear shot at the GOP nomination.
Rep. John Fleming is also eyeing a bid against Landrieu. A Fleming aide said the congressman believes there needs to be a strong conservative in the race and was considering a Senate run.
Another contender mentioned in GOP circles is tea-party-aligned Rep. Jeff Landry. The freshman lawmaker faces an uphill runoff election against Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. on Saturday. Whether he wins or loses, some Louisiana Republicans think he might ponder a statewide bid.
And then there are Republican state legislators also pondering a Landrieu challenge.
“I think she is extremely vulnerable” Teepell said. “So there is going to be a lot of competition among Republicans to take her on and it’s going to be a good ole Louisiana free-for-all.”
For her part, Landrieu seemed ready for the election season and hammered home what appeared likely to be a theme of her bid.
“I am very excited about running again,” she said. “More than ever, the people of the state, Democrats, Republicans and independents really understand the value of having an effective champion in Washington.”