BATON ROUGE, La. — The final race of 2014 isn't over yet, and Sen. Mary Landrieu is attempting to hit the reset button on a campaign season that signaled political death for many of her fellow Democrats.
Fully 74 percent of Louisiana primary voters said that control of the U.S. Senate was "very important" to them, according to exit polls. With that question already settled, Landrieu calls the runoff between her and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy "a new race," one in which she can cast aside the national stakes and focus on local issues. In a head-to-head match based on local records, Team Landrieu believes, she has a clear edge.
"This is the race I have always wanted to run. The national race is over, Bill. The national race is over," Landrieu told supporters in New Orleans on Wednesday morning. Landrieu earned 42 percent of the vote Tuesday, with 41 percent for Cassidy and 14 percent for Republican Rob Maness; a candidate must get more than half the total votes to win.
Since the primary, Landrieu has rarely mentioned President Obama at all, and even then almost never by name. On Wednesday, she asked for Republicans to take another look at her campaign, saying: "I am asking those who voted for Colonel Maness, those that stayed home, and those that even voted for Bill Cassidy because they were mad at someone else—not me, but someone else—to look again and look really hard at this race."
But the same circumstances that have allowed her to localize the race have also made it less of a priority for national Democrats. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee cancelled the bulk of its ad buys for Landrieu on Thursday, Politico first reported, though Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and recently ousted Sen. Kay Hagan both sent out fundraising emails for Landrieu on Friday.
Landrieu's 1-point edge in the primary was lower than expected and, particularly given the national mood, the runoff election favors Cassidy.
Still, Landrieu is confident. When asked Wednesday about the possibility of Democrats pulling their resources, she said: "Number one, the scripture says God's grace is sufficient. Never gives you more than you need, but always gives you enough. So I have confidence that we will have sufficient resources. Number two, I don't think anyone is abandoning our campaign, at least our supporters here. We're still in this fight. We're still standing."
Landrieu instead is trying to turn the race into a local one, embarking on a tour of the state touting every project she's brought home, every bill she has introduced (some which have passed into law) that has benefited Louisiana, reminding voters, if you will, of the "bon temps."
Rather than avoid the "Washington insider" label, Landrieu is embracing it, comparing her record during 18 years in the Senate with that of Cassidy, who has only served in the House since 2008. The Landrieu campaign's new refrain: While she was doing X for the state, "Where was Bill?"
The campaign had that question printed up on posters the day after Election Day with a cartoonish version of Cassidy in the center, his nose elongated and bulbous, eyebrows raised and smile curved into a smirk, looking something like Snidely Whiplash without the mustache. The signs accompany her everywhere—to stops with some of Cassidy's constituents in La Place, whose homes were devastated by Hurricane Isaac; to a Veterans Affairs hospital in New Orleans that she secured funding for before Cassidy was even in Congress; and to Baton Rouge Community College, where she touted Democratic efforts to decrease federal student-loan debt while surrounded by college students in Cassidy's hometown.
The question of Cassidy's whereabouts was difficult to answer on Wednesday, the first day of the runoff election. The Republican had no public events, while Landrieu campaigned in New Orleans and in the river parishes, which lie in Cassidy's congressional district. Cassidy's campaign did not respond to emails, text messages, or phone calls from national or local reporters and a spokesman on Thursday would not comment on where they had been or what Cassidy had done.
Landrieu has long made her clout and experience in the Senate a key message of her campaign. That argument was damaged Tuesday, when Republicans claimed the Senate majority, but even as a member of the minority, Landrieu argues, her seniority still counts, particularly considering that her Republican counterpart, Sen. David Vitter, is very likely to be elected governor next year.
One of Landrieu's key arguments in the primary race was her position as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, one of the most important congressional bodies to Louisiana interests. But with the majority, so went her position. Still, Landrieu is holding on, arguing that even as ranking member she will have influence over the panel. "I work very well with [Alaska Sen.] Lisa Murkowski, who is going to be the Republican chair of the committee. She and I work very well together. The question is: Do you want someone on the committee? Or do you want a rookie who has no seniority and is likely not even to get on the committee? And if he is given a committee assignment, he's on the back end," she said.
The next Democrat in line for the committee's ranking-member position after Landrieu could be even less friendly to Louisiana interests. If Landrieu loses, Cantwell would be likely to take her seat. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia warned earlier this year in a campaign press call hosted by the Landrieu campaign that a Cantwell chairmanship could be disastrous for energy-dependent states like Louisiana. "Without Mary, we—those of us that come from energy states, such as West Virginia and Louisiana—we're dead. We're absolutely dead," he said, according to U.S. News & World Report.
On the campaign trail, a let-loose Landrieu seems almost incredulous that a three-term Republican with what she has called a "pitiful record" thinks he can take her down.
"Who does he think he is?" she asked at an event in Cassidy's backyard on Wednesday.
In a move unusual for an incumbent, Landrieu is the one begging Cassidy to debate her. The Democrat has asked for six debates in the four-week runoff period, one for each year that Cassidy wants to serve in the Senate, she says. Cassidy retorted Thursday that he would accept just one debate, the Monday before the Saturday runoff, with an additional meeting for each time she "barnstorms the state with Barack Obama."
Obama has not made a single appearance in Louisiana with Landrieu this year, and given the national results for Democrats on Tuesday night that's unlikely to change. "Frankly if she wants to have another, [she'll have to] reveal to the people of Louisiana her closeness to the president because on policy there is no difference," Cassidy told reporters Thursday.
The Republican is keeping a low profile early in the runoff race, as he leads in the polls. In the first three days of the runoff, Cassidy has held just one public event (where his staff had a Landrieu tracker ejected from the hotel) while Landrieu has held five. Neither candidate had any public events on Friday.
And although Republicans have already claimed the majority, Cassidy has kept his focus on national issues, repeatedly slamming Landrieu's support for the Affordable Care Act and highlighting his conservative bona fides.
That will be key for his campaign, as he works to attract the 14 percent of Louisianans who supported Maness in the so-called jungle primary.
Cassidy began working to attract those voters at his first public event of the runoff on Thursday. At a noon gathering in Baton Rouge, Cassidy accepted the endorsements of two antiabortion groups, the Louisiana Family Forum and Susan B. Anthony List, a national conservative group that set up a get-out-the-vote operation for Republicans in Louisiana but did not back Cassidy in the primary. There, former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, who now serves as SBA List's vice president for government affairs, promised to keep knocking on doors for Cassidy's campaign and praised him as a "100 percent pro-life" candidate, knocking Landrieu as being "100 percent pro-abortion." The group's PAC is running a similar slogan on a billboard in Lafayette, just an hour west of Baton Rouge.
"We know religious freedom is at stake here," Cassidy said at the event, while affirming his support for a 20-week abortion ban. "The Hobby Lobby case showed that there's going to be attempt after attempt to limit our religious freedom, even though the First Amendment—the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights is that which protects our freedom of faith and our freedom of speech."¦ None of us should be using the long arm of the state to attempt to intimidate people of faith."
Cassidy also highlighted his endorsements from a wide array of Republican politicians and groups from the National Right to Life to Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Asked if an endorsement from Jindal, whose popularity in Louisiana has waned in recent years, would help him, Cassidy chuckled: "People have said, 'My gosh, conservatives are split.' Now I have Ted Cruz, Governor Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Governor Bobby Jindal, Right to Life, Susan B. Anthony [List], we can go down the list. And folks are asking me now if it helps? At least it will kill the narrative that we're not unified," he said.
Cassidy's election, he told reporters Thursday, would ensure that the GOP is "one vote closer to overriding a veto" on, say, repealing the Affordable Care Act. But even if Cassidy wins, he would be just the 54th member of the Republican majority (assuming the GOP retains its lead in the still-unresolved Alaska Senate race), leaving the party far short of the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto.
But Cassidy insisted some Democrats would be willing to buck the president: "I have a suspicion that some of them will say we better listen to the will of the American people. Senator Landrieu says she would vote for Obamacare again tomorrow. There will be other senators that choose to represent their states, as opposed to represent Barack Obama. I think they'll be joining us in voting to override those veto threats."
Landrieu doesn't seem to have a plan to pick up supporters of Maness—who has yet to endorse in the runoff. The Democrat said this week that she is hopeful that those voters "will look to me and say, 'You know, we don't agree with Senator Landrieu on everything, but we know she shows up, we know she'll fight, we know she'll be there in a pinch and that's the kind of gal we like.' "
Left unsaid by Landrieu's campaign: The best-case scenario for her is that those voters don't show up at all.
Landrieu won her own home parish in New Orleans with 83 percent of the vote and defeated Cassidy in his East Baton Rouge Parish by 12 points. But her support among white voters was just 16 percent, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, about half of the support she's received in past elections. And African-American voters, 98 percent of whom backed Landrieu, made up a smaller percentage of the electorate than in Landrieu's past campaigns.
Landrieu will need to turn those numbers around if she stands a chance in the December runoff. She campaigned Wednesday in St. John the Baptist Parish, which is 55 percent African-American, touting her work to restore the area in the wake of Hurricane Isaac, and she has also highlighted her response to Hurricane Katrina on the trail. Cassidy, she said, wasn't there. "He's their congressman," she said Wednesday. "I'm their senator. I have 64 parishes."
On Katrina, those questions have backfired. At the New Orleans event Wednesday, Landrieu asked "where was Bill" while she was securing funding to rebuild the city's VA hospital in the aftermath of Katrina.
"Where was I during Hurricane Katrina?" Cassidy responded at a Baton Rouge event Thursday. "I'll tell you where I was. I was first at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center providing emergency medical care for those who were fleeing flood waters. And then I was at a Kmart abandoned in north Baton Rouge for three days leading a team of volunteers which took some dirty, greasy, broken-lights building and turned it into a surge hospital to accept those refugees.... Just because you live in D.C. and have a political office doesn't mean you've served more than someone who actually lives here serving the indigent, trying to create health care for those who otherwise wouldn't receive it."
The timing of the Dec. 6 runoff could make turnout difficult for both candidates. The runoff is scheduled for the same Saturday as the SEC football championships. The Louisiana State University Tigers are still in the running for the championship game, and in a state where college football is religion and tailgates begin not long after the sun comes up, turnout could be a problem.
Landrieu's campaign is hopeful that another runoff election, in the 5th Congressional District, where embattled Rep. Vance McAllister lost his seat Tuesday night, could boost Democratic and African-American turnout. Monroe mayor Jamie Mayo, a black Democrat, won the primary on Tuesday and will face Republican Ralph Abraham, a white medical examiner, in December. But Mayo faces even tougher prospects in that race, where he earned just 28 percent of the vote while six Republicans split an additional 71 percent of the vote.
Landrieu has turned her fortunes around in a runoff before. She won runoff elections in 1996 and 2002, when turnout grew. But Landrieu and three other minor Democratic candidates ran 12.3 percent behind Cassidy, Maness, and a third Republican who ran in this year's primary. That margin is 1 point larger than she faced in 1996 and more than 10 points larger than the GOP-Democrat margin in her 2002 runoff.
For now, Landrieu is betting that by highlighting her work for the state and avoiding national issues, she can pull out a victory in December.
"Please Louisiana, wake up," Landrieu implored in Baton Rouge on Thursday. "Let's look and see who is the best"
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.