Mary Landrieu's landslide loss in her Louisiana Senate runoff Saturday was the official end of a miserable month. Like a lot of Senate Democrats, Landrieu lost her job this fall. But for Landrieu, the loss's sting has an extra dimension: Not only did she get ousted, she got abandoned—national Democrats walked away from Landrieu as she waged a desperate runoff campaign. The party's national apparatus is defending the decision as a refusal to spend resources on the longest of long shots, but in Louisiana, the decision promises to have long-term consequences.
Any Democrat is a long shot to win a statewide race in Louisiana and likely will be for many years to come. And after what happened to Landrieu, how is the party going to convince any promising politician to risk running the same gauntlet?
It's a question Democrats are going to have to answer quickly. Eleven months from now, the state is going to elect a new governor. And in 2016, the Senate seat held by Republican David Vitter will be up for grabs. For Democrats to have any of winning either race, they'll need a standout candidate.
So far, there's not clear answer: The most-often-mentioned name for both the 2015 governor's race and the 2016 Senate race is Mary Landrieu's brother, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, followed by the recently defeated Democrat herself. But neither sibling looks likely to run, and no one expects the state's lone Democratic representative, Cedric Richmond, to give up his safely blue New Orleans district for a statewide bid. (Richmond did not respond to request for comment for this story.)
One of the state's top local Democrats, state Senate President Pro Tempore Sharon Weston Broome, has chosen to run for mayor of Baton Rouge rather than a statewide office when her term is up in 2015. "Certainly I think having a commitment from the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] would help a candidate running for statewide office," Broome told National Journal, saying that she and many state Democrats were "surprised and disappointed by the abandonment of Senator Landrieu."
For Democrats, it's not a problem that's unique to Louisiana. With Landrieu and Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas having lost, there's a large southeastern swath without a single Democrat. The party's only hope for turning one of those red seats blue is a candidate who can pull off a nifty trick: Keep faith with the base while winning over a vast section of the electorate that Landrieu couldn't. Just 18 percent of white voters picked Landrieu in the primary, according to exit polling.
But even if the party finds a southern wunderkind, they'll have to convince the candidate to roll the dice on an uphill statewide race—a tough sell for any politician whose candidacy would mean pressure to abandon a powerful post.
"I would say if you're in Baton Rouge looking to make a name for yourself, I'd say maybe consider running for mayor," said Louisiana State University political science professor Bob Mann. "A Democrat running for mayor can win in Baton Rouge. But statewide, it's hard to see a real path in the foreseeable future."
Any candidate's calculations will include a hard look at Landrieu's experience. Despite winning 94 percent of African-American votes, Landrieu only took 42 percent of the total vote in the three-way race. Those numbers in the primary were enough to turn off national Democrats, who had spent upwards of $4 million on primary race, but promptly canceled their ad buys for the monthlong runoff.
And so Democrats are likely to get candidates who currently sit farther down their bench, said Mann: "It's not like there's really anyone giving up anything prominent to run. You're down to state reps and senators. Over the horizon, the bench is so weak, it's hard to see who could emerge."
Louisiana party officials, however, are promising to field a slate of credible candidates, some of which have already raised their hands for the job. Because of the state's term limits, local officials are forced to switch offices frequently, freeing up some prospects for the party.
"We definitely have challenges, but we have some opportunities we can exploit because of some of the Republicans' infighting," said one state party official. "We're very organized, we're very unified, and we're making plans to have a slate of statewide Democrats so we don't have these needless intraparty fights."
Among those putting their names in the hat, candidates say Washington's snub is reflective of a bad year for Democrats in general, but that the coming cycle will offer them a chance to run against an equally unpopular Republican leadership in the governor's mansion.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, who will be term-limited in 2016, already has several Republican successors lined up for his spot, the most prominent of which is Vitter. Only the top two vote-takers will advance through Louisiana's open-primary system, though, if no candidate wins outright with 50 percent.
"I am disappointed in the DSCC.... For them not to participate in [Landrieu's] runoff, I think, was a serious mistake," said Louisiana House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, who has declared his candidacy for governor in 2014. "But there traditionally has been a real difference in terms of party preference when it comes to state elections and federal elections, and we have to try to figure out whether that remains the case."
Edwards, like other Louisiana Democrats, predicts the landscape will be different for his party in 11 months, when the top races have less to do with national issues that tie them to an unpopular president. The more space between Washington and his race, the better, Edwards says.
"If the discussion is about Washington, D.C., we don't do so well," Edwards said. "When it's about Louisiana we do very well, and that's an advantage that we have next year."... [W]e now have a very unpopular governor "... so the question on a lot of people's minds will be how do we get away from the Bobby Jindal era."
Democrat Chris Tyson, a first-time candidate running for Louisiana Secretary of State, said the Senate majority had been a large burden on Landrieu's campaign that won't be there for candidates in 2015.
"I've heard people say here that they're concerned about giving [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid another vote "... that sentiment won't be operating in 2015," Tyson said. "I think it's incumbent on candidates in 2015 to express that to national donors, to say, look, there is still a reason to believe in Louisiana".... We're not one of the last states to have statewide elected Democrats for no reason."
For the brave few putting their names on the ballot in 2015, there's still a sense of hope that being one of the last states to turn solidly red could help them be one of the first to turn it back.
"Let's also be honest "... in Louisiana and elsewhere around the country, but particularly in the South, the president's skin color makes a real difference," Edwards said. "I don't believe the Democrats are going to have an African-American candidate for president, and I think you're going to see some people whose philosophy really does more align with the Democratic Party are going to migrate back to the party."