Though Republicans face tough sledding in this year’s Senate election, Mary Landrieu, despite her two terms, is generally considered to be the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent. This is confirmed by recent polls showing with a narrow lead over likely challenger John Kennedy (the State Treasurer and a recent Republican convert).
However, those hoping to defeat Mary Landrieu need to be aware of the voter coalitions that exist in Louisiana today. It is also worth analyzing how we think a candidate like John Kennedy would stack up against Mary Landrieu in the 2008 campaign. We’re focusing on John Kennedy in this the article because he currently is the only announced candidate against Senator “Liberal Mary” Landrieu.
The dynamics of the 2008 re-election race for Mary Landrieu need to be understood in the context of Louisiana races since the 2005 hurricanes as a contest between “New Louisiana” and “Old Louisiana.” “New Louisiana” is best defined as the Baton Rouge/New Orleans media markets – roughly everything east of the Atchafalayariver/swamp. This part of the state (except, of course, New Orleans) has seen some growth, particularly in the suburban parishes, and tends to prefer more moderate and media friendly candidates. “Old Louisiana”, which is everything west of the Atchafalaya, tends to prefer more traditional candidates, as well as staunch conservatives.
This new division in Louisiana politics first appeared in the 2006 special election for Secretary of State. Jay Dardenne’s 30-28% first primary victory overshadowed the fact that all of the parishes he carried with a plurality or absolute majority were in “New Louisiana.” In this area, he led over Democratic political insider and former state senator Francis Heitmeier 42-28%, despite Sen. Heitmeier’s New Orleans base. The race was a different story across the Atchafalaya in “old Louisiana.” Republican Mike Francis ran on a strong conservative platform and led with 38%. Sen. Heitmeier, who was helped by increased black turnout in several area races, received 28% of the vote, while Jay Dardenne only received 19% of the vote, and did not carry a single parish in this part of the state.
This “Old Louisiana”/”New Louisiana” split reappeared in the 2007 statewide elections, as all (with one exception) of the victorious statewide candidates came from “New Louisiana” and ran more strongly in that part of the state. The one exception was Democratic Attorney General candidate “Buddy” Caldwell. While he was from Madison Parish in “Old Louisiana”, he ran a strong media campaign in “New Louisiana” and was aided by the Times-Picayune and Alliance for Good Government endorsements in New Orleans. He was also helped from the unpopularity of prosecutions initiated by former Attorney General Charles Foti after Katrina. Accordingly, he (Caldwell) received his strongest support in the primary and runoff from the Baton Rouge and New Orleans media markets.
What does “Old Louisiana” and ”New Louisiana” have to do with Mary Landrieu’s re-election ? Mary Landrieu’s two narrow wins were due to her strength in “New Louisiana” and, interestingly, Northwest Louisiana. Her geographical strengths/weaknesses were mostly shared by her brother, Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, in both of his successful runs for Lt. Governor. In fact, in all four Landrieu victories, “Old Louisiana” gave the Landrieus between 47 and 49% support, even though the Landrieus’ victory margins varied from 50 to 57% of the vote. Northwest Louisiana even steadier in its support of the Landrieus – they received between 52 and 53% of the vote in all four races. Where the race varied the most was in “New Louisiana.” While the Landrieus’ support west of the Atchafalaya was flat in all four races, “New Louisiana” has steadily given the Landrieus increasing levels of support with each successive race. Mary received 52% of the vote here in 1996, then increased that to 54% in 2002. Mitch’s 2003 first primary victory was achieved by his receiving 55% of the vote in “new Louisiana” despite competition from former Lt Governor Melinda Schwegmann in the New Orleans media market. With Schwegmann out of the picture in 2007, Mitch largely had “New Louisiana” all to himself, which when combined with the absence of a media campaign by his opponents, enabled Mitch to receive a whopping 65% of the vote in “New Louisiana” and a 57-30% first primary victory.
So while Mary Landrieu can be beaten, she can’t be beaten solely on the basis of her weakness with voters west of the Atchafalaya. She needs competition from a candidate who can compete with her in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans media markets. On the surface, state Treasurer (and recent Republican convert) John Kennedy is a strong competitor, based on the favorable press (and, of course, political friction) he has received from standing up to the “powers that be.” These stands against the old status quo can and should be used in campaign commercials targeted at the Baton Rouge and New Orleans media markets. At the same time, however, Kennedy needs to shore up his base in “Old Louisiana”, as he has two apparent vulnerabilities the Landrieu campaign can easily exploit. First, his opposition to taxpayer supported sugar mills will undoubtedly be used against him by as evidence that he is supposedly “anti sugar.” This is a charge he can’t afford to ignore. In 2002 Suzy Terrell lost critical votes (and, of course, Sen. Landrieu made huge gains) in the “sugar belt” parishes in “Old Louisiana” by being tied to allegations the Bush Administration was planning to allow Mexican sugar to flood the U.S. markets. Kennedy is also vulnerable to charges of being a “flip flopper” based on the fact that in his 2004 Senate candidacy, he ran to the left of Congressman Chris John. These charges, if not answered, will hurt Kennedy with traditional conservative voters in “Old Louisiana.”
However, not all of the heavy lifting has to be done by John Kennedy to earn the support of voters in “Old Louisiana.” Mary Landrieu has her own set of vulnerabilities. Her voting record on taxes and judicial nominees can and should be used against her in “Old Louisiana”. Additionally, Senator Landrieu shares the November 2008 ballot with national liberal Democrats like Hillary Clinton (or a liberal like Barack Obama). She can and should be tied to their candidacies with voters in “Old Louisiana.” Finally, Mary Landrieu is the lone statewide Democrat in recent memory whose victory margin depends on a strong (and near-unanimous) Orleans Parish vote. Since Katrina, though, she likely faces a 50% reduction in her Orleans Parish vote base. This means there are approximately 80,000 votes she must get from outside of Orleans Parish. Since voters west of the Atchafalaya seem to have a fixed opinion of her, she has to go to New Orleans suburbanites and/or Baton Rougeans to make up this vote deficit.
In conclusion, the dynamics of Louisiana elections in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita complicate Mary Landrieu’s re-election bid. However, it remains to be seen whether a challenger can make the appropriate appeals to voters in different sections of the state.