Baton Rouge, La. — Mary Landrieu is Louisiana political royalty, but her reign as the state’s senior senator may come to an end this fall.
Like California’s Jerry Brown, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor, Landrieu was born into Democratic politics. Her father, Moon Landrieu, served eight years as mayor of New Orleans before he became Jimmy Carter’s secretary of housing and urban development. Her younger brother Mitch was reelected as mayor of the Big Easy in February.
Landrieu is now facing a reelection battle of her own, and it will be the most difficult of her career. For Republicans, recapturing a majority in the U.S. Senate may hinge on her defeat.
The race is shaping up to be bellwether of sorts for the GOP’s chances to take over the Senate. The latest polls show her running neck and neck with her most formidable Republican opponent, Bill Cassidy, a 56-year-old congressman, but it won’t be an easy fight.
The nonprofit group Americans for Prosperity, which has spent nearly $30 million already this election cycle, is running ads against Landrieu in every media market in the state. But a source close to the group says the Louisiana race ranks just “sixth or seventh” on the group’s target list, behind races in West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Alaska (in the first three of those states, the Republican is running for an open seat).
As it happens, the GOP needs to pick up six seats to recapture a Senate majority — a win in Louisiana could put the GOP over the top.
Landrieu, 58, has held public office for virtually her entire adulthood. She was elected to the Louisiana state house at the age of 25 and has fought to stay in public life: After losing a gubernatorial bid in 1995, she put her defunct campaign infrastructure to good use, turning it around to run a successful campaign for the state’s open Senate seat the following year.
In 1996, she had the help of President Clinton, who barnstormed the South on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates. She was also aided by Louisiana’s jungle-primary system, in which candidates of both parties appear on a single ballot. As six conservative Republicans duked it out among themselves, Landrieu gained ground. In the runoff, she beat Republican state representative Woody Jenkins by three tenths of a percentage point.
Republicans saw their next chance to take the seat in 2008 (in 2002, Republicans ran Suzie Terrell, a former elections commissioner with little name recognition). Much had changed in the years since Landrieu was first elected to federal office: George W. Bush carried the once-Democratic state in two close national elections, and Bobby Jindal was elected governor, while Democratic voter registration continually declined. Democrats accounted for 52 percent of Louisiana voters in 2008, down from 60 in 2000 (that number stands at 48 percent today, still higher than the registered Republican tally, 28 percent). Hurricane Katrina, too, had displaced more than 90,000 mostly African-American Democrats from New Orleans.
But Landrieu’s challenger, John Kennedy, wasn’t the ideal candidate for the increasingly red state: He had run for an open seat Senate seat in 2004 as a Democrat, and David Vitter emerged victorious in that election. As state treasurer in 2004, he had endorsed John Kerry, but he ran against Landrieu as a supporter of the Bush agenda. Landrieu was able to repurpose the opposition research Republicans had produced on Kennedy in his state-treasurer race, and one of her attack ads closed, “John Kennedy, one confused politician.” And, of course, Landrieu had Candidate Obama, in a state with a substantial share of black voters, to buoy Democratic and African-American turnout.
Over the past six years, Louisiana has become even more favorable to Republicans. In fact, Landrieu remains the only Democrat elected to statewide office. Since 2011, when Republicans gained control of the state senate for the first time since Reconstruction, the GOP has controlled every major statewide office. Mitt Romney carried the state by 17 points.