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)

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."