LAFAYETTE, La. — They call her “Senator Disaster.” But it’s not an insult.
Sen. Mary Landrieu earned the nickname because of the unfortunate, sometimes tragic events that have befallen her native Louisiana since she took office, including Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, making her an accidental expert in disaster preparedness.
“You’ve got to be ready, and you’ve got to be smart, and you’ve got to be nimble, and you’ve got to be flexible, and you’ve got to really understand that disasters will happen,” she said last week as she wrapped up a month-long swing through the state.
That’s also sound political advice for Landrieu as she readies a run for a fourth term in 2014 in the face of a very real threat of electoral disaster.
Louisiana has been trending Republican since Landrieu, a Democrat, first took office in 1997. Her approval ratings scarcely outpace disapproval in most polls. And she faces a competitive challenger in Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Republican.
“It’ll be a hell of a race,” said Landrieu spokesman Matt Lehner, “but she’s ready for it.”
The balance of power in Washington might hinge on it. Landrieu’s race is a critical firewall for Democrats hoping to maintain control of the Senate.
Republicans need to win at least five of six battleground states to take control of the Senate: Louisiana, Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas, Alaska and North Carolina. In four of the those races the GOP faces a Democratic incumbent and discouraging odds. Only three sitting Democrats have lost over the past decade.
Republicans are betting that they can win those seats by capitalizing on the public’s dissatisfaction with Obamacare and by tying vulnerable Democrats to the increasingly unpopular President Obama. A National Republican Senatorial Committee poll showed 62 percent of Louisianans oppose Obamacare.
“There are a lot of people who recognize [Landrieu] is with the president 94 percent of the time, and they want a change,” said Cassidy, who has raised more than $3.2 million so far — not far behind the $4.8 million Landrieu has on hand — from national Republicans hoping to take back the Senate as well as Louisiana’s Republican donors.
But, unlike other vulnerable Democrats, Landrieu isn’t hiding her record of support for some of Obama’s hallmark policies and said she “would be proud to be with him” were he to campaign for her in Louisiana.
“I think people in Louisiana are smart enough to understand the difference between his views and my views,” Landrieu told the Washington Examiner.
And she doesn’t dodge questions about her support for Obamacare, broaching the subject without prompting because she believes many Louisianans have been grossly misinformed.
“I would do it again today,” she told supporters at an intimate fish fry in Mansura, La. “I’m not running away from this.”
That frank and somewhat counter-intuitive approach is not unique to Landrieu. In Arkansas, at-risk Sen. Mark Pryor called Obamacare “an amazing success.” Still, Landrieu has no intention of making health reform the focus of her campaign. Instead, she’ll target issues of particular importance to Louisianans — such as oil and gas, the state’s industrial bread and butter.
Gripping-and-grinning her way across Louisiana, Landrieu ticked off her pro-energy credentials: pushing to steer more of Louisiana’s drilling revenue back into the state, helping lift the deepwater drilling moratorium imposed after the BP oil spill and, if re-elected, taking charge of the Senate Energy Committee. She backs the Keystone XL pipeline, aligning herself with her constituents while bucking Senate Democrats who, under pressure from environmental groups, have so far refused to schedule a vote on the project.
As a red-state Democrat, Landrieu is accustomed to drawing fire from both parties, but it’s a dynamic she doesn’t shy from and even relishes.
“I can get pig-headed about things, and stubborn,” Landrieu told a crowd in Lafayette.
Landrieu comes from a family with deep political roots in Louisiana. Her dad, Moon Landrieu, was mayor of New Orleans, and her brother, Mitch Landrieu, is now. And that familiarity with voters is sure to give her campaign a boost, but so will her years of practice.
Landrieu was just 23 when she first ran for state representative and has lost just one election since then — what Landrieu calls a “brutal” governor’s race in 1995.
Her third-place finish in the race was humbling, she said, and has been durably instructive.
“You just can’t win every one, you know?” she reflected. “You’ve just got to be brave to try and to run with your heart and all your energy, and sometimes you’ll win and sometimes you won’t.”