By Robert Mann
Some conservatives were probably heartened on Wednesday by Sen. Mary Landrieu’s vote to end debate on legislation requiring background checks on certain guns sales and which would have closed the gun show loophole.
Voting for any gun control measure is bound to be political suicide in Louisiana, right?
Such legislation is certainly more popular across the country than in Louisiana. Even though 86 percent of Americans believe background checks are the least we should do in response to recent gun tragedies like Sandy Hook and Aurora, on Wednesday the measure failed, 54-46. It could not get the necessary 60 votes to shut off debate.
Landrieu opposed separate legislation that would have banned assault-type weapons and which limited the size of gun magazines. (Not surprisingly, her communications office issued a press release that emphasized the other vote, headlined, “Landrieu Votes to Strengthen Second Amendment Rights for Louisianians.”)
But in Landrieu’s vote on the Manchin-Toomey background check compromise, her political opponents surely believe they have a potent issue that the gun lobby will use to help Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy defeat the three-term Democrat in November 2014.
Perhaps Landrieu will lose her reelection campaign. She is surely among the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate this election cycle.
But if she loses, it won’t be because of her vote in support of Manchin-Toomey or other votes like it.
In fact, I predict that should Landrieu prevail against Cassidy — or any other opponent she might draw — it will be because of votes like this one, not in spite of them.
Her supporters may applaud Landrieu as courageous and compassionate. To some, it may seem she cast a tough vote, risking her Senate seat to do the right thing.
Landrieu herself said she supported the bill because it was the right thing to do.
I don’t doubt her motives for one moment.
But her vote was also politically astute.
In their hearts, Cassidy and his aides know this, too.
They were, no doubt, hoping she would vote to oppose the bill for one simple reason: if Landrieu loses, it won’t be because she didn’t peel away enough GOP votes from Cassidy; it will be because she failed to motivate her Democratic base.
Landrieu won reelection campaign in 2008 for several reasons. For one, his positions in previous campaigns fatally wounded her opponent, state Treasurer John Kennedy.
But more important to Landrieu’s reelection was the presence of Barack Obama on the presidential ballot.
While he didn’t carry Louisiana, he might have carried Landrieu.
The upcoming November 2014 election, however, will be a midterm contest. Landrieu will not be sharing a ballot with Obama, who could help her motivate thousands of additional Democrats to vote, as he did in 2008.
But the dynamics of a midterm election – along with its lower turnout — will tend to favor the GOP, whose members often vote in greater numbers during a Democratic administration.
That’s why Landrieu must be careful not to move so far to the right that she alienates her Democratic base.
Instead, she must motivate Louisiana Democrats by persuading them that they have much to lose if Cassidy is elected.
In short, to hold her Senate seat, Landrieu needs a very strong Democratic turnout.
Therefore, it would be a mistake to waste her energies trying to persuade GOP voters that she is a staunch, Republican-light conservative. (A wise politician once told me: “Given the choice between a real Republican and cheap pretender, Republican voters will choose the real thing every time.”)
On this background check legislation, Landrieu’s vote was really a no-brainer — on the merits and on the politics. Even NRA members overwhelmingly support commonsense reforms like background checks.
There will be votes in the future — probably plenty of them — when Landrieu finds herself voting with her Republican colleagues. That’s been the case since she was elected to the Senate.
The Manchin-Toomey bill, however, is an issue in which the right thing to do was also politically smart.