Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana is the last Democrat up for election in 2014 following a GOP wave that swept eight of her colleagues out of office in November.
Now senators, operatives and reporters are waiting for that same massive current to come crashing down in the Gulf.
The three-term senator is increasingly facing it alone as she readies for a Dec. 6 runoff against her Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy. The official campaign arm of the Senate Democrats withdrew $2 million in reserved ad time in the state immediately after Election Day, Nov. 4. The Senate Majority PAC, which spent more than $2.4 million on Landrieu’s behalf in the general, has not spent a single dollar in the past week, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Meanwhile, conservative groups are still pouring thousands of dollars into ads against her.
Despite the air of negative inevitability that surrounds her, Landrieu has spent her time back in Washington thrashing forward in hopes that action will keep her afloat.
In the four days Congress has been back in session, Landrieu’s every move has garnered unusual amounts of attention — and she’s made plenty of them. She’s held two press conferences, spent nearly 190 minutes talking on the Senate floor and tried to push through legislation authorizing construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline running from Canada to Texas.
“This was a discussion about a pipeline. You would have thought it was the end of the earth. You would have thought it was the most significant thing that was happening in the free world or the entire world. Guess what? It wasn’t,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), an ally of Landrieu’s, told reporters late Tuesday night. “We have taken this discussion about a pipeline and made it about much more than it is.”
The Keystone pipeline debate quickly became tied up with Landrieu’s political prospects. Though it was viewed as a lifeline by some, there’s no evidence to suggest that congressional passage would have changed the picture in her race or that authorization would have happened imminently. President Barack Obama may even have vetoed the measure, had it won enough votes to land on his desk.
Republicans who worked with Landrieu, like the bill’s other co-sponsor, John Hoeven of North Dakota, declined to give Landrieu credit for her role in the partnership that pushed the bill forward. And incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky repeatedly referred to the Keystone legislation as Cassidy’s.
“It’s always a tough process, and that’s why I try to keep the focus on the merits,” Hoeven said when asked whether it was difficult to watch a colleague go through the political circus that engulfed Landrieu in the week leading up to the vote.
Every act of hers turned into a reading of tea leaves, as political observers latched on to the last political story of the election. The common and otherwise mundane scene of a senator rushing to the floor to make her assigned speaking time became a full-blown kerfuffle that reportedly told a deeper story about Landrieu and a rift with leaders. A television news reporter on Landrieu’s first day back in Congress, last Wednesday, asked the senator point blank — and in front of a bank of cameras — whether she believed she was “a lost cause.” Bloomberg News ran an account of the wide disparity in runoff ads run by the two parties — the GOP aired 1,917 commercials to Landrieu’s 82 in the runoff’s first week — under the title “Democrats leave a body on the campaign trail.”
The morning after the Keystone vote failed, Landrieu took to the Senate floor to discuss international adoption. Looking at the giant photographs of newly united families placed by a staffer on an easel behind her, she got emotional and teared up.
When Congress recesses for Thanksgiving this week, Landrieu will head back to Louisiana to make one final pitch to maintain her place as senior senator from the state. Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he plans to go down to help her campaign. He said other moderate Democrats have also committed to do so and that he hoped more would join the fight.
“I was proud of Mary and the fight that she led for us, the fight that we almost won,” Manchin said Wednesday. “I hope the people of Louisiana know what a fighter they have in Mary Landrieu, that she’s not afraid to take on — whether it be the president, whether it be the leaders of her own party or the establishment. … This is something that needed to be talked about and needed to be debated, and Mary got that debate for us. We got our say. This day would have never come had Mary not been in charge.”
A week earlier, Manchin had said he was “praying” that the voters of Louisiana would keep Landrieu in the Senate.
While the public drama surrounding Landrieu revolved mostly around the Keystone vote, privately operatives in Washington and Louisiana have begun discussing her future in the event she loses the runoff. Exit polls on Election Day showed her down in a prospective head-to-head runoff by 8 points. A Republican political operative told Yahoo News that Cassidy’s internal polls recently had him up more than 15 points.
With Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana already declared for the 2015 gubernatorial race, Landrieu could try for a comeback and to take his Senate seat in 2016. She also could mull a run for the governor’s mansion against him, though her brother Mitch, the mayor of New Orleans, is also said to be considering a bid.
But Landrieu won’t discuss these scenarios until after Dec. 6. She has defied the odds and won in a runoff before, in 2002. And because the runoff is on a Saturday, Democratic operatives are hoping that their ground game and turnout in key demographics in New Orleans might be able to close the gap. Or that Republicans, who could believe the race is locked up, will see their turnout drop off. Though some conservatives who voted for a third-party candidate in the race could flip their votes to Cassidy, others might stay home rather than vote for the establishment candidate.
Until then, Landrieu will stick to her talking points and hope she can be the one red-state Democratic senator to ride out the wave.
“My experience is still valuable. My chairmanship of the Energy Committee until the end of this Congress is very valuable to the people of Louisiana,” Landrieu said Tuesday night after the failed Keystone vote. “And when I get back here as ranking member — with 18 years of experience, having worked with three presidents, six governors and four majority leaders of all different parties to represent the people of my state — [that] is valuable.”