Senator Landrieu's Hail Mary goes beyond Keystone XL pipeline

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana gets her vote in the Senate Tuesday on the Keystone XL pipeline. But to win reelection, she needs much more than that.

Bill Haber/AP
Sen. Mary Landrieu, acknowledges supporters at her election night headquarters in New Orleans, Nov. 4, 2014. She faces long odds in a run-off election on Dec. 6 against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy.

It’s Hail Mary time for Mary Landrieu.

The embattled Louisiana Democrat, facing long odds in her quest to win a fourth term in the Senate, will get her vote Tuesday on the Keystone XL pipeline. After years of delay by the Obama administration over whether to proceed with the controversial project, the Democratic Senate leadership is taking the issue to the Senate floor.

Senator Landrieu goes head-to-head Dec. 6 against Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) in a runoff election, the final undecided Senate race of 2014. Landrieu is trying to show that she can best represent the interests of Louisiana’s top industry – energy – in Washington. Just getting a vote is a show of clout, her advocates say.

At press time, it wasn’t clear the bill would pass. Landrieu was still trying to rustle up the final vote to get to 60, the number needed to halt a filibuster. If the bill passes, President Obama has signaled he is likely to veto it. But if, for some reason, he signs the bill, even that is probably not enough to save Landrieu.

Landrieu’s challenge is far more profound: In the first round of voting, on Nov. 4, she got only 18 percent of the white vote. To win on Dec. 6, she needs closer to 30 percent. National Democrats have all but given up on her. Right after the Nov. 4 vote, in which Landrieu got 42 percent of the overall vote to Congressman Cassidy’s 41 percent, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee canceled ad buys for the runup to Dec. 6.

The third finisher on Election Day, tea partyer Rob Maness (R), got almost 14 percent of the vote. The bulk of his support is expected to go to Cassidy.  

But publicly, no one is writing the current senator off completely. She is, after all, a Landrieu – the daughter of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu and sister of the city’s current mayor, Mitch Landrieu. And she’s won runoffs before, even after coming in second on Election Day.

To succeed, Landrieu has to deploy what analysts call the “30-30 strategy” – winning 30 percent of the white vote, and ensuring that African Americans make up 30 percent of the electorate. On Nov. 4, she came close on the second part, when 28.8 percent of voters were black. Most voted for Landrieu. 

“The challenge now is doing it a second time,” says Michael Henderson, a political scientist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “But the bigger issue, more difficult than black turnout, is going to be getting that roughly 30 percent of the white vote.”

In 2008, Landrieu won 33 percent of the white vote. Just six years later, the drop to 18 percent represents a dramatic decline. On Nov. 4, fellow Southern Democrats Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina also lost their Senate reelection bids.  If Landrieu loses, it will be the end of an era: no more Democrats representing the Deep South in the Senate (though one could put Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida in that column, as northern Florida is culturally Southern).

In all, the Democrats lost eight Senate seats on Election Day, handing control of the chamber to the Republicans come January. The fact that Landrieu’s race will not decide control of the Senate is a large part of why national Democrats aren’t sinking big resources into the runoff. In 2016, the Senate election map provides many opportunities for Democratic pickups, and the party is marshaling its resources.

For now, all eyes are on the Keystone vote. If the bill passes, and Obama vetoes it, that shows Landrieu is at odds with the unpopular Democrat – in a way, good for her image. During the first round of campaigning, Cassidy lashed her to Obama, repeatedly saying that she had backed the president 97 percent of the time in 2013.

If Obama were to sign the Keystone bill, that could also help Landrieu, as it would demonstrate her clout on energy policy. So in a way, if the bill passes, Landrieu can’t lose. But chances are, she also can’t win. 

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