By David Goldstein, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)
NEW ORLEANS — In Louisiana, they serve up their politics the way they do their seafood: with a bite of tartness and a healthy dash of hot sauce.
“Almost criminal,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) said in a recent debate of her two Republican opponents’ opposition to a higher minimum wage.
“I’m a gastroenterologist,” one of them, Rep. Bill Cassidy, said during a rally in Metairie. “And that will prepare me very well for Washington, D.C.”
From Huey Long to 87-year-old Edwin Edwards running for Congress after four terms as governor and eight years in prison, Louisiana has reveled in larger-than-life characters and melodramatic plots, some as sultry as the October breeze off the Mississippi River.
“It’s always interesting, full of personalities,” said Sen. David Vitter, who won re-election himself after a prostitution scandal and is thinking of running for governor.
Now comes this year’s Senate race, with nothing as scandalous but still a down and dirty free-for-all with control of the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance. Landrieu is seeking a fourth term, a tougher-than-ever challenge for her now as the only statewide Democrat left in Louisiana — and tied to the unpopular leader of her party, President Barack Obama. If she ekes out a re-election in a multi-candidate field, her party might hold the Senate. If not, Democrats may be on their way out. In the final days, the going is rough.
“I won’t answer the phone at night because I’m tired of being solicited,” said Judy Binder, an election official in St. Charles Parish. “I’m tired of the TV ads. We’re being inundated.”
Landrieu, 58, is the inheritor of a political brand as familiar to most Louisianans as names such as Tabasco or Brees, one she hopes will outshine any taint from Obama. Her father, “Moon” Landrieu, was a popular mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s. Her younger brother, Mitch, a former lieutenant governor, is now the mayor.
The senator, the eldest of nine children, was just 23 when she became the youngest woman elected to the Louisiana Legislature. She won her Senate seat in 1996 and now chairs the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee. That gives her jurisdiction — and considerable influence — over the oil industry, the economic heartbeat of her state.
But because of Louisiana’s shifting political terrain and Obama’s plunging popularity, she’s facing a stiff challenge from Cassidy.
The three-term congressman from Baton Rouge first drew attention when he led an effort to turn an abandoned Kmart into a temporary medical center in the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In Congress, he’s voted to repeal the 2010 health care law, defund Planned Parenthood and raise the debt ceiling. He favors increasing the retirement age for Medicare and Social Security, and for legalizing medical marijuana.
Cassidy, 57, is dividing some of the anti-Landrieu vote with another Republican, retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, who’s running as a Tea Party candidate. Maness, 52, spent 32 years in the military and flew combat missions over Iraq. Without the millions of campaign dollars available to Cassidy and Landrieu, he’s substituted town halls and relied on Tea Party heroes such as Sarah Palin to attest to his bona fides.
Landrieu has an edge over Cassidy in the election, but she may not top the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff Dec. 6 between the two top candidates.
“Maness is seen as a hindrance,” said G. Pearson Cross, who teaches political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Others see Bill Cassidy as … not fervent enough. Many think Mary Landrieu can maybe, just maybe, hang on. This promises to be a very, very close race.”
Landrieu has had setbacks. She had to repay the government nearly $34,000 for campaign-related flights that her office had charged to the taxpayers. She’s under fire for listing her official residence as a jointly owned family home in New Orleans while maintaining a multimillion-dollar home in Washington. She recently replaced her campaign manager.
Worried Democrats are urging her to step up her get-out-the-vote efforts, particularly among black voters.
Up in Lafayette, in Cajun country, in the backroom of a neighborhood convenience store, 63-year-old Sidney Williams Jr. talked about a courtesy Landrieu once extended to his family and him and said she just needed to push ahead.
Perching a black cowboy hat on his head and grabbing his accordion, he started singing “Jolie Blonde,” a Cajun standard, waxing philosophical between verses about the quirky ebb and flow of politics.
“It’s not the horse who leaves at the gate first,” Williams said. “It’s the horse that comes up in the stretch. Me, I’m just a die-hard Mary Landrieu fan.”
Yet there are fewer of them, and fewer Democrats, in the state.
Though Democrats outnumber Republicans in party registration by more than 600,000 voters in Louisiana, Landrieu’s base has been shrinking. When she was elected in 1996, Democrats accounted for 65 percent of the registered voters. That’s now slipped to 47 percent.
The loss of about 50,000 Democrats since 2005 in the wake of Katrina hasn’t made her task any easier.
Her biggest obstacle, however, is the president.
She’s tried to keep her distance. Of Obama’s signature health care law, which Landrieu supported, she says it’s “not perfect. It needs to be fixed,” but not repealed. It’s a delicate maneuver because she needs the president’s supporters: African-Americans, single women, young people and independents.
“She’s really going to be threading the needle there,” said Edward Chervenak, the director of the polling center at the University of New Orleans.
Republicans have smartly made their campaigns all Obama all the time, and there was probably no better example of their strategy than in the recent Landrieu-Cassidy-Maness debate.
No matter the question — economy, education, health care, the Islamic State — the Republican answer was Obama, as the two GOP candidates laid all their criticism at the feet of the president, and by extension, Landrieu.
“The president’s policies are on the ballot,” Maness said.
That may help drive turnout for Republicans.
“My children and grandchildren, and their future, I think, depends on the Republicans taking over the Senate,” said Kathleen Harrison, 75, while waiting for Cassidy to speak at his Metairie campaign rally. “People have to take it seriously and get out and vote.”
Regardless of the turnout Nov. 4, this race may head into a runoff.
Democratic hearts sink at the prospect. Capturing more than half the vote in a three-way battle will be tough enough for Landrieu. Taking on Cassidy one-on-one, with his support boosted by former Maness voters, might be arduous.
Photo: Jason Paris via Flickr