Sen. Mary Landrieu is running out of ways to win her runoff in Louisiana next month.
Even before Landrieu came up one vote short Tuesday night for cloture on her bill to pass the Keystone XL pipeline, a contentious energy project that would have at the very least given her an opportunity to tout her influence in Washington, Landrieu was struggling to break through in what has been a devastating election season for Democrats.
Landrieu is an endangered species, the last Democratic senator in the Deep South, and she can no longer campaign as the powerful chairwoman of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources committee in her oil- and gas-rich state now that Democrats have already lost their majority in the Senate. An internal poll released last week from her Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, showed Landrieu down 16 points in the polls. The last 15 public polls have shown Cassidy leading, although most merely by single digits. And, even if Landrieu could have convinced enough of her colleagues to get behind Keystone, it's unclear how much of a difference such a victory could have made for her. House Republican leaders already allowed Cassidy to lead the charge last week to approve Keystone in the House.
Now, Landrieu faces the task of running a campaign in Louisiana that few in Washington believe she can win. After 18 years in the Senate, it looks like this is a campaign that Landrieu will finish off alone.
At this point, her party isn't swooping in to save the day: National Democrats have pulled the plug on her race. With roughly $10 million in debt from the 2014 election cycle and a pile of losses from Arkansas to Colorado, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee canceled roughly $2 million in television advertising spots it had reserved when Landrieu's runoff race was still seen as competitive or possibly the deciding race for control of the Senate.
The DSCC still says it continues to monitor the race.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, is revving up its turnout machine and coalescing around Cassidy. Even Cassidy's primary opponent, Rob Maness, who earned 14 percent of the primary vote on Election Day, has appeared at "unity rallies" to show his support. High-profile conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have appeared with Cassidy to show their support. The RNC dispatched 300 volunteers to Louisiana to knock doors and campaign for Cassidy, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee still plans to spend between $1.5 million and $2 million on the race.
"Landrieu could work very hard, get her voter-turnout operation working, in theory, better than ours and pull it out," Maness says. "But it doesn't look like that is likely. We are going to stay on message and continue to work harder than she is."
Few pollsters in the state see how Landrieu can win at this point. Bernie Pinsonat, an independent Louisiana-based pollster, puts Landrieu's odds right near impossible. That is largely because of how far down Landrieu is with white voters with just weeks to go. Landrieu started the cycle with about 20 percent of the state's white vote, but on Nov. 4 she won just 18 percent of that demographic—despite tens of millions of dollars national Democrats spent on her behalf.
"Why is she [still] running? Nobody down here has figured it out, because as long as Cassidy has a pulse he'll win," Pinsonat says.
Back in Washington, many Democrats still publicly present an optimistic view on Landrieu's race. She has been, after all, the Democratic Party's phoenix, seemingly rising from slim political odds time after time. From the beginning of her career, Landrieu's always had a tough election, and she has yet to lose.
"Sixty percent of people in the state voted Republican, but Mary Landrieu is Mary Landrieu, and if anyone can pull it off, she can," says Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who was recently elected to run the DSCC in the 2016 election cycle.
Getting voters to show up at the polls for a Saturday runoff election is always a challenge—but in her past runoffs, Landrieu managed to mobilize enough people so that the runoff turnout numbers were almost identical to the primary ones. Take 2002, for example: Election results show that 1,246,333 people voted in the Nov. 5 primary, and 1,235,296 people voted a month later in the runoff (when Landrieu won with 52 percent of the vote).
This year, especially with national voter turnout hitting its lowest point since World War II and the storied Democratic field operations falling short across the map, it will be a far bigger challenge. In an email to supporters, Landrieu's campaign stressed that its "aggressive field operation" has been a success; still, Landrieu bested Cassidy by only 1 point in the Nov. 4 jungle primary, and the runoff electorate will almost certainly be smaller and more Republican than the one that voted earlier this month.
Landrieu has managed to eke out surprising runoff victories in the past by localizing her race. She even managed to do that in 2002, when President George W. Bush was at the peak of his popularity and Republicans won big across the country.
In 2008, even as Republicans gained ground in Louisiana, Landrieu triumphed by making the race about her support for constituents after Hurricane Katrina. Barack Obama lost the state by nearly 20 points and Landrieu still won.
"Cassidy definitely comes out of the past Election Day with the upper hand," says Burns Strider, a southern Democratic strategist. "Landrieu is the underdog, but, you know, if this is Vegas and these are the odds, I am not afraid to bet on the underdog in this case."
In the wake of the midterm-election rout, Senate Democrats empowered Landrieu to play up her hard-charging, Obama-antagonist persona. Liberal Democrats in the Senate and the White House would have preferred to wait to take any action on the Keystone XL pipeline, but Senate Democratic leaders granted Landrieu a vote on the pipeline anyway—a chance to star on the Senate floor before she returns to Louisiana in the final weeks of her campaign. Even without a win, Landrieu aspired to use the Keystone vote to show constituents that she prioritizes voters over the president and Louisiana over gridlocked Washington.
Privately, however, many of her colleagues wonder how Landrieu survives in conservative Louisiana when the script has already played out in so many other red states. "She faces the same dynamic that a lot of us faced," said one Democratic senator who spoke on background. "We worked really hard for our states, we produced for our states, and yet the voters don't seem to want to acknowledge that is the case."
Another Democrat said there is a sense within the caucus that there is nothing the more vulnerable Democrats could have done to save themselves this election cycle, short of serving under a different administration.
"I don't think it is about the Democratic brand. I think it is about the sort of perfect storm of the midterms and the Obama brand," the senator said.
Democrats are reticent to publicly admit that Landrieu is nearly electorally dead, but they aren't doing much to publicly boost her, either. It's not just the DSCC as a whole—if Democrats really thought she could win, they could be sending her more money out of their own funds to boost her campaign. Some members have sent out fundraising letters and sent the DSCC money to buy a radio ad in Louisiana, which began airing this week, but that's just a fraction of what the committee initially pulled.
Rick Weiland, a Democratic Senate candidate from South Dakota who lost his race in November, called national Democrats' limited efforts to save Landrieu with a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline "just plain stupid."
"You've already lost the Senate. Polls show that Mary Landrieu, whose runoff election you hope to influence, has absolutely no chance of winning," Weiland wrote in a letter to supporters.
Landrieu's first true loss of this cycle came with Keystone Tuesday. Many of her red-state Democratic colleagues who lost on Election Day wandered over on the Senate floor to offer her a hug and words of encouragement. However, it may not have mattered if Keystone passed, or if Landrieu got more money from national Democrats, or if she did anything else to try and increase her odds. This cycle's troubles started with Landrieu's ties to Obama and only grew when she got a formidable opponent in Cassidy, who has been largely gaffe-free on the trail. There is little more Landrieu could have done to exhibit her frustration with the administration as long as she still has a "D" in front of her name.