MANY, La. — In this anti-President Obama, anti-Obamacare state, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is banking on one thing to get her reelected in November: her clout.
Everywhere she goes, Landrieu reminds voters that she has it — the clout to “deliver for Louisiana,” the clout to take on Obama and get the Keystone XL oil pipeline built. After nearly two decades in Washington, Landrieu is the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which is no small thing for a poor state that pins its economic future to the booming oil and gas industry.
Landrieu has been taking her panel’s work on the road — a campaign that brought her here to Many, the seat of rural Sabine Parish, where Obama won just 22 percent of the vote in 2012.
“It’s a gavel we don’t often get,” she told constituents assembled for a committee “field hearing” in Many this month. “I’ve got it now, and it’s really important for me to be able to wield it on behalf of communities like this.”
At a throw-the-bums-out time of disgust with Washington, and in a state that is increasingly hostile terrain for Democrats, Landrieu considers her seniority the key to her survival. Why, she asks Louisianans again and again, would you trade the energy committee chairman for a rookie?
Republicans say the answer is simple: Landrieu is wrong about important issues, such as her support for the unpopular health-care law, and too often votes in lock step with liberal Democrats. Her main opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R), argues that Louisiana voters care more about policy than about pork.
“She’s got seniority, but she’s using it for the president, not for our people,” Cassidy, a medical doctor and opponent of the Affordable Care Act, said in an interview. “Good policy is good politics, and bad policy is bad politics — and I am on the right side of the policies that matter to the folks in our state.”
In her first extensive national interview of the campaign, Landrieu told The Washington Post that she hopes voters conclude this: “Washington is broken, but Mary Landrieu’s record isn’t. Washington might not work together well, but Mary Landrieu’s been able to deliver.”
“I think they look at me and they say, ‘You know, she’s an exception,’ ” Landrieu added. “I think people see in me a fighter that never quits, never gives up, always puts the state first. May not agree with me on every one of my positions, but I think they think, ‘Gee, Louisiana does have this clout now. . . . Why would we walk away from that?’ ”
On Tuesday, Landrieu is scheduled to lead Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on a tour of Louisiana’s energy industry. They will begin in New Orleans with a hearing on petroleum infrastructure and continue by helicopter with visits to Port Fourchon, one of the nation’s biggest supply ports for deep-water drilling, and the Port of Iberia, which produces offshore platforms.
Landrieu has always had tough races but has consistently found ways to prevail. It does not hurt that she is the scrappy daughter in a Louisiana political dynasty: Her father, Moon Landrieu, is a former New Orleans mayor, while her brother, Mitch Landrieu, is the city’s current one.
This year’s race, however, may be her toughest, with Obama’s favorability rating hovering around 40 percent. Louisiana’s election rules (there are no party primaries) mean she will have to win more than 50 percent of the vote on a crowded November ballot to avoid a December run-off, probably against Cassidy.
The Louisiana campaign, which may determine which party controls the Senate, is a test case for whether embattled Democrats in Republican-leaning states can frame their reelection bids around local issues and keep them from becoming referendums on the president.
In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan (D) has focused on the unpopular state legislature, in which her Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, serves as speaker of the House. In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor (D) aired a television ad saying the Bible is his “North Star.”
And in Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich (D) has been touting his work on local economic development projects. In his latest ad, he rides a snowmobile across the frozen Arctic Ocean to show where oil drilling will soon begin as a result of the permits he secured.
“There’s a stark difference between the way we see these races and the way Republicans in general see these races, as referenda on the president and the national political environment,” said Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We truly see them as choices between the two people on the ballot, and the contrast varies dramatically from state to state.”
Landrieu’s advocacy of domestic drilling has won her plaudits from business leaders who say they would otherwise back Republicans. The oil and gas sector has given her campaign $547,286 this cycle — more than to any other senator except John Cornyn (R-Tex.), according to an analysis of campaign finance data by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mark Miller, president of Louisiana-based Merlin Oil & Gas, is a Republican and has donated to many GOP campaigns over the years. But he’s backing Landrieu.
“With her seniority, she is able to steer the energy agenda under the current administration and protect the oil and gas interests for our business,” Miller said. “She’s gone to bat for us for years. It would leave a huge vacuum if we had to start over again.”
But Cassidy questions her effectiveness on energy issues. “We can have a trophy: Senator Landrieu’s from Louisiana, and she’s chair of the energy committee,” he said. “But we can’t even get a vote on the Keystone pipeline?”
One of Landrieu’s television ads this spring stars shipbuilder Boysie Bollinger, a longtime GOP fundraiser and activist. As Bollinger walks through his shipyard in a hard hat, he says into the camera, “Louisiana can’t afford to lose Mary Landrieu,” adding that her energy committee post “means more boats, more jobs and more oil and gas. She does big things for Louisiana.”
Bollinger Shipyards, which employs 3,000 people in Lockport, has been a big beneficiary of Landrieu’s largesse. Last fall, she helped secure a $250 million federal contract for Bollinger to rebuild Coast Guard cutters.
The question for Landrieu is whether regular voters will make the same calculation as industry executives. In 2010, then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D), running a tough reelection race in Arkansas, aired ads touting her clout as chairman of the Agriculture Committee. But they had little effect. Republican John Boozman beat her by 21 percentage points.
“If they just keep with the message, ‘I’m powerful, I’m powerful,’ I don’t think that’s the way to win,” said Robert Mann, a Louisiana State University professor who writes a state politics blog. “If this is a referendum on Mary Landrieu’s almost 20 years in Washington, I think she loses the race.”
Roger Villere, the state Republican Party chairman, said of Landrieu’s strategy, “It’s an amazing thing: Consistently voters are saying, ‘We want new people.’ . . . She’s going all out on her experience. It’s a contrarian view.”
Landrieu’s advisers argue otherwise. They say she has a well-established reputation of fighting on Louisiana’s behalf — most prominently to direct federal disaster aid in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And they say their research shows that the oil and gas industry is so central to people’s economic security here that once everyday voters inclined to turn out Landrieu are reminded of what she has done and could do for the state, they’ll think twice.
That’s why Landrieu is traveling the state showing the power of her post. Earlier this month, she brought Jeh Johnson, the new secretary of homeland security, to Monroe and Bossier City, both conservative parts of this state, to showcase the cybersecurity industry she has helped to flourish.
If Republicans have their way, Louisiana voters will determine Landrieu’s fate based on one particular part of her record: her 2010 vote for the Affordable Care Act. The law colloquially known as Obamacare is deeply unpopular here, and conservative groups have been hammering her on the airwaves over it.
In her interview with The Post, Landrieu defended her vote and called the law “a good step forward” but added: “I’m working to improve it.”
For Landrieu, the politics of Obama and the health-care law are tricky. To win, she needs to increase turnout among black voters in New Orleans who widely admire Obama. But she also has to show independence from the president to win over white voters elsewhere.
When Landrieu visited Many, she did not mention the health-care law. “We’re here to talk about the future,” she said, ticking through the goodies she hopes to bring to the region. She noted with pride, “I’ve been an appropriator since I was 23 years old.”
A local official pressed Landrieu about renewing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 50-year federal license for the huge Toledo Bend reservoir built for hydroelectric projects. Sure enough, three days later, the senator’s office issued a news release: “Landrieu pushes 50-year license for Toledo Bend at FERC nomination hearing.”
At Landrieu’s event, Gerald Long, a Republican state senator who represents this area and is weighing a future run for governor, congratulated her for her chairmanship and asked the audience to applaud.
Long, a descendant of legendary former governor and senator Huey Long, understands the power of pork. He also forecasts its limits. “Mary won’t lose this race,” he said in an interview. “But the president will lose it for her.”
So it was that on March 20, when Obama’s health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, came to New Orleans to promote sign-ups on the federal health exchange, Landrieu was out of town. She spent the day 200 miles away in Lake Charles, addressing the annual meeting of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.