NEW ORLEANS—Helena Young stands outside of New Orleans City Hall on a warm fall day, recalling how, nine years earlier, she had pleaded with her mother to listen to officials' warnings to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Katrina. This was the lethal storm that haunted Young's dreams, and she was leaving with or without her mom.
When Young returned, she heard her mother's story of survival in the New Orleans Superdome. And she found a hurricane-ravaged New Orleans that, she says, looked like a scene from the post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead.
Many New Orleans residents are like Young. They remember Hurricane Katrina's 175-mph winds pummeling the Gulf Coast. And when asked which candidate they support in this year's high-stakes Senate contest, they say Sen. Mary Landrieu, because she was there for New Orleans residents when they needed her most.
But outside the most populous city in Louisiana, the story is different. The race between Landrieu, Rep. Bill Cassidy, and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness isn't just about what the incumbent has done in the state, but also about Washington's dysfunction and President Obama's policies.
The Landrieu name seems to hold more clout in New Orleans, where the city's mayor is her brother, than arguably anywhere else in the state. John Couvillon, CEO of JMC Analytics and Polling, calls it the Landrieu "halo effect." In part, this is because she was a highly visible figure in the post-Katrina haze, he says, fighting to resurrect the wrecked city.
"Katrina had a special resonance in the 2008 election," Couvillon said, "because, of course, the storm was only three years old, and you were still in the rebuilding process."
But nine years later, that once vivid memory has faded for some residents of other parts of Louisiana, and national issues, such as the Affordable Care Act, have taken its place. The edge Katrina relief gave the senator during her 2008 reelection bid has dissipated, Couvillon said.
"Her reelection campaign is based on her ability to bring home the bacon," he said. "I don't think that argument has as much appeal as it might have a generation ago."
Even in 2008, Landrieu did far better in New Orleans than the rest of the state. She took 84 percent of the vote there, according to The Times-Picayune, in a year when her statewide total was 52 percent.
It's unlikely any of the three top candidates will receive 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 4. And because of Louisiana's quirky rules, Election Day serves as the primary, and many analysts project a Dec. 6 runoff between Landrieu and Cassidy.
Both staffers and Landrieu make it clear that the morning spent at Southeastern Louisiana University nearly a week prior to Election Day is not a campaign stop. The senator is at the Hammond campus to tour three new classrooms for special-needs children and to kick off the college's week of events exploring diversity, foster and orphan care, and adoption.
"I want to begin by thanking this university for a long tradition of outstanding work in the department of education and a real leader in helping to know the truth about education, which is the most important thing besides a strong and supportive family that a child can have," Landrieu told the dozens of students packing a room inside the college's Teacher Education Center.
As her remarks drew to a close, Landrieu told the audience she couldn't imagine paying off hefty loans post-graduation. She came from a family that could afford college tuition, a novelty that isn't lost on Landrieu. But students like her are in the minority at Southeastern Louisiana University, with about 80 percent on Pell Grants or student loans, Landrieu said.
Then, she made a brief personal pitch.
"One of the reasons that I'm running is to make Pell Grants more accessible, reduce the interest rate on student loans, and my opponents are not for this—neither one of them," Landrieu said. "So you should just know that if you have not decided who you're voting for, let me make a strong argument."
A few minutes later, she toured the new special-needs play library and the exploration and relaxation rooms costing more than $230,000. The funds came from two Louisiana Board of Regents Enhancement Program grants, but there's more to that story.
"Any national reporters, come in here for a minute," Landrieu said, gathering the media tagging along on the tour inside one such classroom. "National reporters, I want you to listen up.
"This grant that they received to do this room came from offshore oil and gas drilling."
Then, Landrieu dove into an explanation about how she and former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston fought with the federal government to share revenue from a stretch of land off the Louisiana coast.
"So when you hear me talking incessantly in Washington, which I do, about how important it is for Louisiana to have access to part of the $9 billion that comes off of our coast," she said, "this is how we're using a part of it."
This point-and-tell act is familiar territory for Landrieu.
On Tuesday, she visited the Franklin Canal Floodgate, in a community she helped secure $5.5 million to restore after Hurricane Gustav.
On Wednesday, she arrived in Henderson to meet with representatives of the crawfish industry, which she helped to collect $19 million in unpaid duties.
On Thursday, she headed to Vidalia to the groundbreaking of the Vidalia Technology Center, which she worked with the Economic Development Administration to award $1.2 million for the city to build.
Many residents in heavily Democratic New Orleans buy into her record. She helped cancel millions in disaster loans after Hurricane Katrina. And she co-authored the RESTORE Act, which directed 80 percent of BP fines from the oil spill back to the Gulf Coast states, according to a campaign press release.
"She's been a friend to the area," New Orleans resident Charles Andrus said after exiting City Hall's early-voting booths. "The history of Mary has been with the city."
New Orleans isn't the only area that's benefitted from her 18-year Senate tenure, Landrieu said in an interview after the debate, ticking off a number of projects in other Louisiana parishes.
But do other Louisianans remember? And if so, do they care?
Next to Orleans Parish is Jefferson Parish, where residents streamed in and out of a tall, nondescript building on the last day of the state's early voting.
Theresa Rogers headed inside to cast a ballot for Maness because the "government's broken and it needs to be fixed." The culprit, she says, is Obama, and Landrieu has been an ally for the Democratic president, particularly in her vote for the Affordable Care Act.
Another Jefferson Parish man walked toward the polls, saying he'd probably vote for Cassidy. It didn't quite matter the candidate as long as he or she aligned with his main criteria: "anybody against Obama."
And several voters in West Baton Rouge and Rapides Parishes echoed the same arguments against Landrieu. The country is headed in the wrong direction, they said, steered by a Democratic president whom Landrieu has supported.
This theme is woven into ads percolating the television screens here. They say Mary Landrieu votes with Obama 97 percent of the time. Obama has another two years left, but Landrieu can be fired now.
In parts of Louisiana, Obama is "radioactive," said Couvillon, the JMC Analytics and Polling CEO. That means the Cassidy campaign doesn't have to vary its messaging too much. The argument against Obama is powerful enough.
This has led some observers to ask, "Is President Obama running for Senate or is Mary Landrieu?"—in the words of one Landrieu supporter exiting early voting in West Baton Rouge Parish.
A similar question was posed Monday night inside WWL-TV in New Orleans, where Landrieu and Maness faced off in a debate without Cassidy (he declined to participate, an absence Landrieu pointed to repeatedly). Susan Page of USA Today wanted to know: If Landrieu lost, would the president be to blame?
With a stern voice, Landrieu said she had no intention of losing. She's fought through many tough races—hence the nickname "Landslide Landrieu"—including her first bid for Senate, when she won by 5,778 votes. She's worked with three presidents, six governors, and four majority leaders with varying degrees of popularity, she said.
"And I'm not going to blame anybody but myself if I lose," Landrieu said to the panel of journalists and television viewers across Louisiana. "I have to take responsibility."