Mary Landrieu’s Tall Task in the Louisiana Runoff

by Stuart Rothenberg November 13, 2014 · 3:26 PM EST

Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu has already made it quite clear that she isn’t going to go quietly in her bid to win a fourth term in next month’s Dec. 6 runoff.

Her effort to brand Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy as “nearly incoherent” ranks up there with Kentucky Democrat Dan Mongiardo’s effort to label Republican Sen. Jim Bunning as not entirely in control of his senses during that state’s 2004 Senate race. (Bunning, who started the race as an overwhelming favorite, was re-elected by only 22,000 votes, a margin of fewer than 2 points.)

This is the ultimate example of trying to “localize” a race, of trying to get voters to focus on the two candidates and forget everything else.

Landrieu doesn’t explain the source of her opponent’s alleged incoherence. But to her campaign, it doesn’t matter whether voters think that Cassidy might have an alcohol or pharmacological problem, or whether they think that he is merely “not quite right.”

All that matters is that they decide to cast their ballot by comparing the runoff candidates, rather than wanting to make a larger statement about President Barack Obama, as many voters in red states did earlier this month.

Given the extent to which she will go to hang onto her Senate seat, I wouldn’t underestimate Landrieu. She is, after all, a skilled veteran campaigner who finished well under 50 percent in November of 2002 but came back to defeat Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell in the state’s Dec. 7 runoff.

But that was a dozen years ago, and the context of this year’s runoff is nothing like what it was in 2002. Landrieu probably still needs Cassidy to make a big mistake to win — something not unheard of from Republican Senate candidates in recent cycles.

Landrieu finished first in the 2002 general election with 46 percent of the vote, well ahead of second-place finisher Terrell (27 percent) and seven other candidates. The four Republicans in the race drew just under 51 percent of the total primary vote (and almost 633,000 votes), while Landrieu and another Democrat combined for almost 48 percent (almost 597,000 votes).

In theory, Terrell had the advantage in the runoff given the total partisan vote in November, but Landrieu drew about 42,000 more votes in the runoff than she and the other Democrat on the ballot had in November, while Terrell drew about 36,000 votes fewer than the four Republicans had received in the general election.

This time, Landrieu finished first but drew only 42 percent of the vote. And instead of the second-place finisher finishing far behind, as Terrell did in 2002, Cassidy drew 41 percent of the vote.

Moreover, the three Republicans in last week’s race drew a combined 55.7 percent of the vote, compared to the Democrats’ 43.4 percent. That is a far larger deficit for Democrats (and for Landrieu) to overcome than the senator faced 12 years ago.

But that’s not the main reason why Landrieu, who has been in the Senate for 18 years and is more easily painted with the Capitol Hill brush than she was in 2002, is so much worse off now than she was in 2002. The main reason is that the entire political context of 2002 was so different from the current political context.

Republican George W. Bush was in the White House then, not Obama. And Bush was popular, unlike Obama now.

Bush’s national job approval stood at 63 percent in Gallup polling conducted Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, immediately before the midterm election. In the national House exit poll conducted during last week’s election, Obama’s job approval stood at 44 percent. And those numbers don’t reflect Obama’s relatively poor standing in Louisiana, where his job approval stood at 39 percent in this year’s exit poll. (Unfortunately, the 2002 exit poll was deeply flawed and the networks never released the data.)

Obama was a huge albatross around the neck of Democrats – particularly Democrats in anti-Obama states – this year, while Bush had little or no negative impact on Landrieu’s 2002 re-election bid.

In fact, Landrieu undoubtedly was helped by the political environment in 2002, even though a popular Republican was in the White House. That’s because the 2002 midterm was a status-quo election. For only the second time since the Great Depression, the party holding the White House gained House seats. Only four incumbent members of the House were defeated (two from each party), according to Vital Statistics on Congress.

Occurring only a little more than a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the 2002 midterms gave voters an opportunity to rally around the president and all incumbents, regardless of party.

Moreover, while Louisiana had gone for Bush in 2000, it hadn’t turned as red then as it is now, primarily because the state had not witnessed six years of Obama, as it now has. Democrat Bill Clinton carried the state twice.

So in this runoff, Landrieu is a clear underdog. She knows it, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which pulled its TV advertising reservations, knows it. And that’s why after a year of attacking Cassidy in almost every way possible, Landrieu is now throwing even the kitchen sink at her GOP opponent.