By Robert Mann
A recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey showing Sen. Mary Landrieu leading a slew of potential challengers seems to have signaled the start of the 2014 Louisiana U.S. Senate race — although election day is still 22 long months away.
According to the polling organization, Landrieu “leads all seven [potential opponents] we tested against her, by margins ranging from 3 to 12 points.” Those potential opponents, PPP said, were: Gov. Bobby Jindal, who trails Landrieu, 49 to 41 in a possible match-up; Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, trailing Landrieu, 46-43; Lake Charles U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, 48-42; former U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, 48-39; New Orleans U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, 48-38; Baton Rouge U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, 50-40; and, Shreveport U.S. Rep. John Fleming, 50-38. Not tested by PPP was BESE Board President Chas Roemer, son of former Gov. Buddy Roemer, who recently said that he is looking at he race.
Besides the obvious good news across the board for Landrieu, the picture gets even better when you consider that four of her strongest potential challengers are not likely to run.
Jindal is busy putting together his presidential campaign. Dardenne is expected to run for governor in 2015 [note: since this was first posted, Dardenne has said he will consider the race against Landrieu]. Boustany and Scalise seem content to continue earning seniority and building power in the U.S. House [they have since said they will not run]. Of those polled by PPP, that leaves — as the most likely challengers to Landrieu — Landry, Cassidy and Fleming.
And what about them?
Fleming is not widely known for his wise, measured conduct in the House (he famously complained that he can barely afford to feed his family on $400,000 a year). He also seems to consider The Onion a reliable source of news. No less bombastic than Fleming, Landry couldn’t hold onto his House seat in a match-up with Boustany last November.
That leaves Cassidy as perhaps the strongest potential challenger to Landrieu, not so much because of any political acumen or statewide name recognition, but because he may simply be the least erratic of the three and the one most connected to the real world (Cassidy practiced medicine for years at the Baton Rouge charity hospital, Earl K. Long Medical Center). Cassidy has built his brief career in House around his strong opposition to the Affordable Care Act. (More later on Obamacare’s potential to impact the race.)
For a time, it appeared Cassidy might also be Jindal’s favored candidate after he hired Jindal’s former chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, to run his 2012 re-election effort. The recent news that Cassidy and Teppell have parted ways has dampened speculation about Cassidy’s favored status in the Governor’s Mansion.
As of today, however, Landrieu has no formal, announced opponent. There are two sessions of the current Congress yet to play out. Hundreds of roll call votes yet to be cast. Millions of dollars in campaign donations yet to be collected. And dozens of TV spots yet to broadcast.
In other words, this positive poll notwithstanding, Landrieu should not take anything for granted. And, as anyone who knows her well can tell you, she will indeed take nothing for granted, having been through four very tough elections in the past 18 years.
In Washington, the conventional wisdom is that Landrieu starts the race as a slight underdog. Unlike 2008, she will not be sharing a ballot with Barack Obama, who drew many thousands of additional Democrats to the polls in 2008 (something that she will sorely miss this time given the vastly altered post-Katrina demographics in Orleans Parish, previously the foundation of so many statewide Democratic victories).
It’s also widely assumed that Obama’s unpopularity in Louisiana will hurt Landrieu, as her opponents will try to make the election a referendum on the Democratic president — just as Landrieu’s Louisiana Senate colleague, David Vitter, did in his 2010 race against Charlie Melancon.
So, based on what we know, how should we assess Landrieu’s re-election chances? Here are several factors to consider as we make our collective judgment:
1. Landrieu is a legendary and fierce competitor — and a prodigious fundraiser. Opponents will underestimate her at their peril. Indeed, the political landscape is littered with the bodies of her former Senate opponents.
2. For various reasons, Landrieu always seems to draw the worst possible and most-beatable opponent. Woody Jenkins was too extreme. Susie Terrell too inexperienced for a major, statewide race. And John Kennedy simply had embraced too many ideologies and was easily caricatured. Don’t be surprised if her luck in this regard continues.
3. Don’t be surprised if Louisiana Republicans find themselves unable to coalesce behind one opponent, meaning a GOP free-for-all in an open primary in which Republicans spend more time attacking each than Landrieu. It’s not likely that Jindal has the power or the will to broker a deal that would end with the Louisiana GOP backing one candidate. If anyone could do that, it will be Vitter and he will most certainly be trying to engineer a single opponent to challenge Landrieu. But can he manage it?
4. While the GOP will surely try to make the election a referendum on Obama, Mary Landrieu is not Charlie Melancon. She’s battle tested and a far-better-known and more popular public figure. It’s also likely that she will be quicker to take on her GOP opponents and will be looking — early on — for ways to distinguish her record from Obama’s (most likely on gun control, energy and taxes).
5. Obama, while not very popular in Louisiana, may not be the factor he was in the 2010 race. For one thing, in 2014, he will be on the downside of his second term, a definite lame duck, just two years from being a former president. Tying him to the Democratic Senate candidate simply will not pack the same punch, and inspire the same level of anger and fear, that it did in 2010.
6. While Louisiana has been trending conservative for many years, the national and state Republican parties have grown more extreme. Even if a split Republican field should manage to force Landrieu into a run-off, that lone challenger could well be the most conservative of the bunch (another Todd Akin?), meaning a riper target for Landrieu’s attacks. (See Jindal’s recent remarks about his party’s stupidity and its capacity to turn off swing voters and moderate Republicans.) In Missouri last year, Sen. Claire McCaskill was all but a dead woman walking, until the Republicans nominated Todd Akin. She’s now serving her second term.
7. Landrieu’s vote for Obamacare is widely considered to be unpopular with many Louisiana swing voters. But that unpopularity has always been based on an abstract notion of Obamacare, not its reality. By the time of the 2014 Senate election, Obamacare will have been fully in effect for almost a year. That may not make it any more popular with Louisiana voters, but it’s also possible that as voters began to experience its more-palatable provisions, the anger over Landrieu’s vote may subside enough to deprive her opponents of a potent issue.
8. Bobby Jindal will probably not be able to offer much help to whoever challenges Landrieu. For one thing, by 2014, he will likely be in partial or full presidential campaign mode, raising money for himself. It’s also looking like Jindal’s once-potent standing among Louisiana voters is slipping away. His job approval in the most-recent PPP poll was a dismal 37 percent. And, in any event, in the five years he’s been governor, Jindal has proven himself stunningly incapable of transferring his popularity to other Republican candidates. His very reluctant endorsement of Vitter in 2010 was not a factor in Vitter’s victory.
9. David Vitter will be working hard to defeat Landrieu, for sure. And while he will be useful in raising GOP dollars and rallying rock-ribbed conservatives to vote, it’s not clear, given his checkered past, that swing voters will be swayed much by his predictable disdain for Landrieu.
Do any of these caveats guarantee that Landrieu will win or is even the favorite? Not at all. But it does mean that while Louisiana and national Republicans would very much like to pick up a seat in Louisiana – and see, in Landrieu, a very ripe target – taking away a Senate seat from Mary Landrieu will not be easy.
Whomever candidate, or candidates, challenge her will know they have been in a fierce battle. Win or lose, they will not emerge unscathed. Landrieu is a fierce, focused and determined fighter.
Were I a Republican congressman and given the choice of trying to take a Senate seat away from Landrieu or swipe a salmon out of the clutches of a grizzly bear, I’d chose the latter.
Seriously, I think I might have better odds with the bear.