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Democrats Abandoned Mary Landrieu in the Runoff. Does it Matter?

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Party campaign committees are incumbent led and incumbent driven, so how important is it for the committees to support incumbents to the bitter end?  

Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu lost re-election in Louisiana , 56 percent to 44 percent, to Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy. But in the days running up to the race on Saturday, there was some criticism that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee didn’t do enough to help the senator.  

After Landrieu finished first, but with just 42 percent, in the November jungle primary, the DSCC cancelled its television ad reservations for the runoff and never replaced them.  

“I wish she had more air cover,” Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., told The Hill before the runoff. “I was there because she’s my friend, but more importantly she’s done an extraordinary job for the people of Louisiana, and you don’t abandon your friends when times get tough.” Meanwhile, Democratic strategists focused on the House are finding solace, and even taking some pride in the fact the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t abandon any incumbents in the face of a very tough election cycle.  

The unofficial “No Incumbent Left Behind” motto, may not have been the optimal political strategy to hold down the party’s losses, but House strategists believed it was important for the future morale of an incumbent-driven organization to stick with incumbents through Election Day.  

In the end, 11 Democratic incumbents went down in defeat in 2014 midterm elections, assuming Democratic Rep. Ron Barber falls short in the recount in Arizona’s 2nd District. Another 13 Democratic incumbents won re-election by less than 5 percentage points .  

While morale was a consideration, part of the reason Democrats invested in losing House races could have been that, in some districts, private polling showed the races to be much closer than the final margin, so continued spending was not viewed as a lost cause.  

To say Senate strategists abandoned Landrieu completely is a bit of a stretch. The DSCC spent at least $4 million for Landrieu in the run-up to the November primary, according to The Campaign Finance Institute .  

But, when polling consistently showed Landrieu losing to Cassidy by at least a dozen points, strategists simply didn’t see the runoff as a wise investment of party resources, including sinking the party deeper into debt . “Everyone was realistic about Landrieu's chances,” according to one Democratic source.  

One Democratic strategist pointed out that while some senators personally contributed to Landrieu or made campaign visits to Louisiana in the final weeks, other incumbents weren’t transferring thousands of dollars to the committee to fund an ad campaign for their colleague nor was the leadership pressing the committee to intervene.  

“How much do you spend on a race she is losing by 13?” a strategist asked rhetorically. “$1 million? $2 million?” The DSCC’s critics point out the committee’s late spending in races in Kentucky and Arkansas where the party lost by a wider margin than Louisiana. But the Bayou State runoff also took place in a unique setting, after the trend of the election cycle was undeniable. After Nov. 4, it was clear that Democratic scenarios about turnout and personal brands were not playing out as planned. (You can read Stu’s post-election analysis here .)  

So will incumbents’ attitude toward the campaign committees impact the future success of the campaign committees? Time will tell, but the answer is most likely, not much.  

Both the House and Senate committees have cut off incumbents in previous cycles and the effect has not been debilitating. The DCCC has more members to rely on for financing and fundraising help because of the size of the House caucus is far greater than the Senate Democratic caucus. But the DCCC is also cultivating its small-dollar donors with greater success each cycle.  

But when new DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján and aides go to incumbents to collect dues next cycle, they will undoubtedly remind the caucus how they didn’t leave anyone behind on the battlefield.  

   

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