Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), locked in a tough fight for re-election in a deep red state, now has a new line to add to her resume–chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“I am excited and honored to lead this committee that is so critical to Louisiana and the nation’s economic vitality, job creation and energy security,” she said in a statement. “I’m humbled to be a part of the long list of pro-energy senators from both parties who have led this committee with strength, vision and distinction, including one of Louisiana’s finest, J. Bennett Johnston.”
In Louisiana, where oil and gas is the largest industry in the state, providing the most jobs and about $60 billion a year to the economy, the promotion could be a boost to Landrieu, who is struggling against a strong conservative tide and an onslaught of ads linking her to the Affordable Care Act.
Her new role comes as Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) was confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to China, a move that set off shuffling in other Senate committees–she takes over from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
Landrieu has been out front in backing the Keystone XL pipeline, saying that she is open to a plan that would give President Obama a deadline for making a decision on the future of the project. She has a solid record of voting against curbing emissions, she supports off-shore drilling, and has criticized Obama for backing what she calls, “overzealous regulation.”
Her record puts the conservative Democrat in line with Republicans.
The Louisiana race will be one of the most contested of the midterm cycle, as Republicans only need six seats to gain the majority, and Landrieu’s race could be a pickup opportunity because the state over the last few years has trended heavily Republican.
In the most recent poll, from November, her Republican opponents, Rep. Bill Cassidy and political newcomer Rob Maness drew a combined 44% of the vote. Louisiana has an open primary election , which means Landrieu must get to 50% of the vote to win outright, otherwise she faces a runoff.
Landrieu has yet to reach 5o percent in recent polls, but because of the new committee assignment she could get an influx of cash and support from the oil and gas industry, which has supported her in the past.
“It’s a bit of a split. Old oil and gas are in her hands and they will support her. But others say “we see some holes in the party’ and think that Bill Cassidy [her Republican opponent] can do better,” said Ragan Dickens, communications director of Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, an industry group. “Does it help her? Will it mean she is more intensely favorable of the industry? Is it enough to say more voters will support her? We don’t know yet.”
The Energy and Natural Resources Committee is one of the most powerful in the Senate and Landrieu’s ascent to chairman reflects her seniority. She was first elected in 1996.
But polls in Louisiana suggest that voters care more about a new fresh voice, rather than seniority.
According to a Southern Media and Opinion Research poll, 56% of voters wanted someone new and 37 percent wanted to make Landrieu a fourth term Senator.
“Louisiana is an energy state and her coronation…it’s a big deal . It won’t hurt her,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a political pollster and consultant, who conducted the survey. “Her argument will be I’m in a position to help, but they are going to counter that by saying that she may be chairman but the person she votes with is President Obama, who is anti-energy.”
The post could help her in Lafayette, for instance, the energy capital of the state, where she has traditionally done well, and the coastal Southern regions of the state. But locally, the oil and gas industry is facing a backlash and enjoys something of a love-hate relationship with many residents, because of pollution and other issues that some blame on the industry.
Landrieu has been trying to separate herself from the national party on energy issues as well as others, running more as a governor by focusing on local issues like flood insurance.
“She tries to run local…but the chairmanship identifies her as part of the national Democratic leadership, so it cuts against the local message,” said Roy Fletcher, a political strategist and campaign consultant.”So she is in a difficult situation. Her chances are like they are every time. About 50-50 or slightly less. And that’s on a good day.”