Politics & Policy

Why Mary Landrieu’s Vaunted ‘Charm’ Is Failing

(Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
She hasn’t bothered delivering on her big promises to Louisianans.

Much has been made of the charisma deficit between Louisiana’s Democratic senator Mary Landrieu and her main Republican challenger, Representative Bill Cassidy. Beltway media have long suggested that her family ties and New Orleans accent could insulate Landrieu from attacks on her record. They’ve noted, too, that Cassidy, a public-health doctor who specializes in the treatment of liver diseases, appears robotic and rigid, unlike the vivacious Louisianans he’d like to represent in the U.S. Senate.

Cassidy’s strong debate performance Tuesday evening surprised friends and foes alike who thought meeting Landrieu, a 34-year political veteran and member of a New Orleans political dynasty, in a televised event would inevitably underscore the personality gap. Instead, he wove personal anecdotes into strong explanations on conservative policy, even sticking to a proposal to phase in the Social Security retirement age to 70. Here, knowing that Landrieu has expressed sympathy for the idea, he quipped, “We will post Senator Landrieu’s endorsement of our Social Security plan on our website.”

Perhaps Bill Cassidy is more likeable than the pundits would suggest. Last year, I attended a political function where Cassidy was also a guest. I reintroduced myself to him as a former Louisiana political operative who worked for one of his physician colleagues in the House, offering to help him in any way I could with his Senate race. His pitch: “Make sure your parents vote for me, okay? Ask your family and all your friends to vote for me. It’s really important.”

A reporter friend marveled at a similar emphatic appeal he made at a recent campaign rally in Baton Rouge. During his stump speech, Cassidy went to great lengths to ask those present not only to vote for him, but also to help convince their neighbors to do the same.

Bill Cassidy is never not asking for your vote. What would otherwise come off as desperation by a more polished politician instead seems sweet and sincere, as though he is pleasantly surprised by his own success. This is a rather striking contrast to Landrieu, who in word and deed seems utterly convinced of her importance to this world.

Louisiana’s importance to her, on the other hand, might be in doubt. Thanks to an opening left by a remarkably uncurious Louisiana press corps, the Washington Post discovered that while the three-term incumbent lives year-round in a $2.5 million Capitol Hill mansion, she continues to claim her parents’ Uptown home as her primary residence for her electoral filings.

This bait-and-switch should come as no surprise to her fellow Washingtonians. Landrieu’s husband, Frank Snellings, is a high-end realtor in the District who counts former Louisiana senator John Breaux and liberal husband-of-the-year Tony Podesta among his high-power clients. It’s probably also not shocking to the employees of Harris Teeter, who just days before her 2008 election found her buying milk on Pennsylvania Avenue, not Prytania Street.

The Louisiana GOP has also recently revealed that for more than a decade, Landrieu used official federal funds to pay for political events. Her campaign eventually released — after blowing past a self-imposed deadline — a report admitting that from 2002 to present, taxpayers shelled out nearly $34,000 for transportation to and from 136 campaign functions. (And this disclosure does not account for flights she took during her earlier years in the U.S. Senate, from 1997 to 2002.)

But the 18-year incumbent wants Louisiana to forget that there seems to be one set of rules for her and another for everybody else by highlighting what their feudal senator can do for them. The simpletons in Point Coupee and De Ridder, she hopes, will be won over by by the “clout” she holds as chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

When asked to opine about her chairmanship and its potential effect — which has largely been exaggerated by the D.C. media — on her race, Landrieu gloated, “I think they think, ‘Gee, Louisiana does have this clout now. . . . Why would we walk away from that?’”

Landrieu seems to think Louisianans crave a return to the “good ole days” of Huey P. Long, where strong-arming and corruption got them all their hearts desired. Even if that’s what her constituents do want today, her self-importance has hardly delivered any tangible results.

#page#In fact, while Landrieu claims she is a champion of the domestic energy industry, which employs 287,000 Louisianans and pays $20.5 billion in wages each year, her political organization advocates for radical environmental interests over those of her constituents. From 2006 to 2012, she directed $380,000 from her PAC’s war chest to anti-drilling politicians whose efforts to undermine the oil-and-gas industry could strangle Louisiana’s economy and kill hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs.

At the same time Landrieu brags about all her imaginary power in a Harry Reid–controlled Senate, she claims independence from the liberal wing that has co-opted the modern Democrat party.

But her votes tell a different story. The senior senator has voted in lockstep with President Obama, supporting 95 percent of his policy initiatives, clearly unconcerned with how unpopular he is — a whopping 61 percent disapprove of his job performance, compared with only 34 percent who approve — in the Pelican State. 

In Tuesday’s debate, Landrieu dug in her heels in support of an unpopular president and his unpopular agenda. She defiantly proclaimed, for instance, “We must not under any circumstance repeal” Obamacare, when 61 percent of Louisianans think the president’s health-care overhaul “went too far.”

She’s far outside the mainstream of Bayou State voters on other issues, too: In 2013, she took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to declare that the federal government had a revenue problem, not a spending problem. Like the president to whom she has pledged her loyalty, she sneaked in a gratuitous snipe at Fox News, complaining that the network has fabricated the nation’s fiscal crisis – presumably insulting the large swath of Louisianans who watch the network.

But why should Mary Landrieu care what these humble Louisianans think? She’s already made it clear she’s willing to defend Obama to the hilt. “I may lose my seat over it, but I’m prepared to do it,” she said.

The way the race is looking right now, she’d better be.

— Ellen Carmichael is a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant. She has served as a senior communications adviser and spokeswoman for a Republican presidential campaign, members of Congress, and statewide elected officials. Follow her on Twitter @ellencarmichael.

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