MANDEVILLE, La. -- The conventional wisdom is that the Senate race between three-term Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy will be about Obamacare. Will Landrieu's vote for the president's national health care scheme -- the decisive vote, as Republicans often point out -- finally end a storied Louisiana political career?
There's no doubt Obamacare will play a big role in the campaign. It's hugely unpopular here in Louisiana — 33 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove in a recent poll — and Landrieu, as much as any other Democrat, is responsible for it. Cassidy and outside conservative groups are pounding her on the issue every day.
But even more than Obamacare, the Louisiana Senate race will be a test of the old proposition that elections are won by bringing home the bacon. Landrieu has always argued that she "delivers" for Louisiana, and in the coming campaign she'll cite the millions and millions of federal dollars she has brought to the state. On the other side, Cassidy believes the political debate has moved into what one aide called a "post-pork paradigm" — an era in which voters choose lawmakers based on policy, not goodies from Washington. In Cassidy's view, Louisianans are eager to move the Senate beyond the old D.C. way of doing things.
More than Obamacare, more than anything else, that is the fight — plain old pork vs. the post-pork paradigm — that will determine who is the next senator from Louisiana, and possibly which party controls the Senate in 2015 and beyond.
Forgive us our debts
One key test could come in St. Tammany Parish, the New Orleans suburb on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It's mostly white and heavily Republican, but Landrieu managed to pull nearly 37 percent of the vote in her last election in 2008, the year of the Obama sweep. Before that, in 2002, she could only manage about 32 percent. This time around, a lot of politicos will be watching Landrieu's performance in the parish, and in the larger area known as the Northshore, as a critical indicator of whether Landrieu can pull enough suburban votes to go along with the margin of victory she will undoubtedly rack up in New Orleans, where her brother Mitch Landrieu was recently re-elected mayor with strong African-American support.
It's no accident that St. Tammany is feeling a lot of Landrieu love these days. "The St. Tammany Parish school district is getting $67.8 million in disaster loans and accumulated interest for Hurricane Katrina forgiven by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Sen. Mary Landrieu's office announced Monday," the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported last December. "The announcement follows FEMA's earlier decision to cancel a $9.9 million loan for the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office and a $14.5 million loan to the St. Tammany Parish government." Landrieu, it turns out, inserted a loan forgiveness provision into the 2013 Homeland Security Appropriations bill -- a move that will likely mean future forgiveness for even more Katrina loans.
When I stopped by the office of St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister at the government center in Mandeville recently, she was thankful — very thankful — for Landrieu's help. Brister, who is not only a Republican but a former chairman of the Louisiana GOP, was so grateful that a few months ago she introduced Landrieu at a fundraiser. "I thanked her profusely for it," Brister recalled. "I was happy to do it, because I think she's done a lot."
And not just on loan forgiveness. "She has gotten us quite a bit of road money, the RESTORE Act," Brister added, referring to another piece of post-Katrina legislation. "It really does help us. I thanked her for it; it was her efforts that led to that."
Brister is a conservative Republican who has a lot of good things to say about the state's Democratic senator. In fact, she said so many good things about Landrieu that I asked directly: "Do you support her?"
Brister paused. "I support her," she said of Landrieu. "I'm not endorsing her. There's a big difference. I am not endorsing her, but I support her effort on behalf of citizens that I represent." Brister said she also supports Cassidy's efforts, but added, "I'm not endorsing him, either."
So the Republican president of a very Republican parish — and a former state party chief, too — is not going to endorse the Republican candidate in a hugely important statewide race? "That is what I anticipate," Brister said. "As parish president I don't think I can do that. We have voters that I represent who would find that offensive, on either side."
Brister also said a number of critical things about Landrieu, hitting not just the Obamacare vote but Landrieu's support of President Obama's far-reaching regulatory proposals, as well as his judicial nominees. "He calls on her, and she votes," Brister said of the president and Landrieu. With a president as unpopular as Barack Obama is in Louisiana, that's a problem.
And that makes Brister's decision not to endorse Landrieu's Republican opponent all the more striking. A solid majority of Brister's constituents will vote against Landrieu; it would be easy for her to side with them. But she won't, and that is a big plus for Landrieu. And it's all the power of bringing home the bacon.
Brister isn't the only example. One of Louisiana's more powerful economic players is Bollinger Shipyards, run by CEO Boysie Bollinger, who has for years been a major Republican donor. In 2014, however, Bollinger has decided to endorse Mary Landrieu. And it is perhaps no accident that last fall the Coast Guard awarded Bollinger a $250 million contract to build six new cutters. Landrieu got that into the 2013 Homeland Security bill, too.
And then there is the energy industry. Any Louisianan who follows politics even a little knows Landrieu has recently become chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. While Republicans hope to use the new position against Landrieu — is she going to cave in to the environmental extremists in her party? — the fact is, the chairmanship offers her the chance to grant tax breaks and all sorts of other favors to business in her state.
If anyone wants more examples of Landrieu's ability to "deliver" for Louisiana, a look at the press releases on her website will suffice:
• Law by Landrieu Nets Louisiana & Gulf $2.16M for Coastal Restoration; Senator calls for accelerated payments.
And that's just in the month of March. With a Democratic president determined to spend whatever it takes to help his party keep the Senate, Landrieu will no doubt announce lots more spending for Louisiana in the months to come. It's all about bringing home the bacon.
A Post-Pork Paradigm?
Bill Cassidy doesn't buy the idea that in today's world a powerful lawmaker can stay in office just by showering benefits on his or her state. "Earmarks are no longer allowed by law," he told me. "And so, when a senator speaks of earmarks, she uses the past tense. If the calling card is, 'I can bring you earmarks,' that calling card has expired. The issue is who can bring you better ideas."
What Cassidy did not say is that Landrieu has managed to arrange loan forgiveness, and Coast Guard cutter contracts, and coastal restoration funds, and friendly energy policies, and more, all without using the old earmark system. Money will find a way in Washington, no matter who has better ideas.
As one of those better ideas, Cassidy pointed to the work he did recently on reforming the nation's flood insurance system, a huge issue in Gulf Coast Louisiana. In 2012, Congress passed a bill that slashed federal subsidies for flood insurance, a move that led to skyrocketing insurance rates. Coastal lawmakers have been working to undo the changes ever since, and this year the Republican House, led in part by Cassidy, and a Democratic Senate, led in part by Landrieu, produced competing bills. Cassidy's prevailed, with Landrieu's final, somewhat reluctant, support. President Obama signed what was known as the Grimm-Cassidy bill into law March 21.
"The bill is a complete replacement of the bill that came from the Senate, which she took pride of authorship in," Cassidy told me. "In order to get the Grimm-Cassidy bill to that position, we first worked on policy, and then we addressed the concerns of Democrats in the House, and then Democrats in the Senate, and then FEMA, and then of the president. ... If the issue is good policy and effectiveness, I win on that."
Many conservatives might still object to taxpayers across the nation subsidizing beach houses, but the fact is that of the two bills, Cassidy's cost taxpayers less. So if a conservative Republican views it all as pork — others see it as relief for struggling homeowners — Cassidy indulged in less pork. On the other hand, once the bill was signed, Landrieu was quick to claim credit for producing flood insurance relief, and it's not clear if voters will make much of a distinction on an issue in which both Cassidy and Landrieu were basically on the same side.
Cassidy is not by any measure a conservative dream candidate -- his rating from Heritage Action is 64 percent -- but in general he has voted with House Republicans to try to curtail the growth of federal spending. It's an approach Louisiana GOP leaders believe state voters, if not state business interests, favor. "I think the Washington approach, the Landrieu approach, that she has used the last few times to win re-election, about what she delivers from Washington -- Washington-based solutions -- that's effective with a certain ruling establishment class, but your rank-and-file are more concerned with what's hitting their pocketbook and what's impacting them every day," Jason Dore, the state Republican Party executive director, told me over a blackened alligator lunch in Baton Rouge.*
Democrats scoff at such notions. "That argument is laughable," one state Democratic strategist who asked to remain anonymous told me after coffee in New Orleans. "As chair of the Senate Energy Committee that guides domestic policy — the driver of Louisiana's economy — it's not a question about whether Sen. Landrieu is in a better position to deliver for Louisiana. It's a fact."
There's laughter, too, at the very idea of a post-pork paradigm. "I think they're saying that because it's Mary," said James Thomas, the 20 year-old chairman of the Lafayette Parish Democratic Party, at a café near the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, where he is a student. "I think if it was Bill Cassidy in office now, they'd say we love him bringing home the bacon, that's what we need, we need his seniority in the Senate. And I think secretly a lot of Republicans who are going to vote for Mary are doing so because they know she brings home the bacon, and they may work in an industry that she brings home the bacon for."
The Obamacare Election
There's no question Bill Cassidy knows more about health care than Mary Landrieu. He's a doctor (gastroenterologist) who is married to a doctor (surgeon) who has spent his professional life in the practice of medicine. When it comes to caring for patients, Cassidy knows what he's talking about. Landrieu? Not so much.
Even moderates like Pat Brister, who speaks glowingly of Landrieu, shake their heads at her support of Obamacare. "She can't change her vote," Brister told me. "That is the big albatross. It is going to weigh heavily. It has already hurt her. I think that's why it's as close a race as it is."
Landrieu is, presumably to her regret, one of those Democrats who, during the Obamacare debate, promised: "If you like the insurance that you have, you'll be able to keep it." Now, rather than run away from her vote, Landrieu has decided to hang tough. Last October, when the Obamacare website was crashing and the whole enterprise seemed a disaster, she took to the Senate floor and said: "We did not wake up one morning and declare this the law. The people of the United States declared this through us as their representatives. If they do not like it, they can un-elect us. Believe me, they will have a great chance because I am up for re-election right now."
Panicked by the mass cancellations of policies in the individual health insurance market last fall, Landrieu quickly crafted a proposal to allow people to keep their old policies. It never got close to becoming law — Obama did the job himself via executive action — but Landrieu's allies point to it as an example of her willingness to fix the health care system she helped create.
More recently, Landrieu joined a group of six Democratic senators to offer a set of Obamacare fixes. Landrieu proposed creating a "new, lower cost, high-deductible option" that would "give consumers more control over their own coverage, spur competition and, most importantly, increase affordability." Landrieu would also have state insurance officials explore selling insurance across state lines -- an old Republican idea -- as well as offer businesses more flexibility and extended tax credits to help in covering employees.
Taken together, the proposals represent a set of modest changes to Obamacare. They are part of what appears to be a hybrid approach to health care law that Landrieu is crafting for the campaign. First, tout what she believes are the good parts of the law. Second, offer a set of relatively minor fixes. Third, ignore the really bad parts. And fourth, go to war with Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal -- a not terribly popular GOP target who is much better known across the state than Cassidy -- over the question of Obamacare's Medicaid expansion.
Jindal, like many other Republican governors around the country, has declined to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Landrieu and other Democrats have taken to using the term "Jindal gap" to describe the Louisianans who make too much to qualify for old-style Medicaid but don't qualify for Obamacare's subsidies. Landrieu is working with Democrats in the state legislature to force Jindal to accept Obamacare's Medicaid expansion.
It won't work. During an afternoon talk in the governor's office in Huey Long's skyscraper capital building in Baton Rouge, Jindal made clear his determination to stick with his decision. Medicaid expansion would cost state taxpayers up to $1.7 billion, he said. It would kick people out of private coverage. It would expand a "broken program" that doesn't deliver quality care. And spending for it would ultimately crowd out resources for tax cuts, education, roads, and other priorities.
"If Mary decides to make Obamacare, any part of it, including the Medicaid part of it, central to her re-election," Jindal told me, "I think she's going to lose."
For his part, Cassidy has offered a detailed proposal, the Medicaid Accountability and Care Act, that would reform both the funding and performance of Medicaid. As for the rest of Obamacare, Cassidy supports a repeal that leads to a more patient-centered, less bureaucratic system. But Cassidy also believes a final Republican alternative will include parts of what is now Obamacare. "Keep in mind that kids-up-to-age-26 was a Republican idea," he told me. "There would be, within a Republican alternative, things which were incorporated into Obamacare, which were just Republican ideas."
The Obamacare fight in Louisiana is, of course, about health care, but it's also about Obama himself. And at the same time she has picked a fight with the governor over Medicaid, Landrieu is staying away from Obamacare's namesake. Last November, when the president visited New Orleans for an economic event, Landrieu flew to the state on Air Force One with Obama. But when it came time for the president to actually appear before Louisianans, Landrieu begged off, saying she had a conflicting commitment across the state in Lake Charles, putting her a good three-hour drive away from any presidential activities.
This year, on March 20, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visited New Orleans to promote Obamacare with Landrieu's brother, Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Sen. Landrieu again arranged for herself to be in Lake Charles, this time addressing the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.
The Money Race
There are a lot of races in which a well-funded incumbent goes against an impoverished challenger. This isn't one of them. Of course Landrieu has a lot of campaign cash; after all, what is being a senior, committee-chairing, pork-dispensing lawmaker about if not attracting millions in campaign contributions? But the news in this race is that Cassidy is well-funded, too, with about $4 million to Landrieu's $6 million at last report. Republicans will have the resources they need to fight.
The GOP will also try to use Landrieu's money as an issue against her, charging that while she portrays herself as a moderate, she often dispenses campaign cash to the most liberal wings of the Democratic party. In conversations recently, more than one Republican mentioned a column by the Wall Street Journal's Kimberly Strassel which reported that Landrieu, "who claims to be her party's fiercest advocate for [the oil and gas] industry," runs a political action committee, JAZZ PAC, that in the last several years "contributed some $380,000 to re-elect some of the most ardent Senate opponents of the oil and gas industry." Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer, Sheldon Whitehouse, Robert Menendez, Bill Nelson, Patrick Leahy, Richard Durbin -- JAZZ PAC has given to them all. "She's taking contributions from oil and gas interests and funneling them to people who hate oil and gas," Cassidy told me.
On the other side, look for Team Landrieu to point to some of Cassidy's own campaign contributions — donations that might surprise state Republicans. In 2002, when Landrieu first ran for re-election, Cassidy contributed $500 to her campaign. The next year, he contributed $2,000 to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco's campaign against Republican Bobby Jindal. "What can I say?" Cassidy told me when I asked him about the contributions. "It's the old Churchill quote: If you're not a liberal when you're younger, you have no heart, and if you're not a conservative when you're older, you have no brain."
Money aside, the coming campaign — and perhaps national politics — will be shaped in part by Louisiana's strange and unique voting system. Election day is of course Nov. 4, just like everywhere else. But in Louisiana, Nov. 4 is a general primary. All the candidates will be on the ballot; for Senate, that will be Landrieu and Cassidy, plus another Republican in the race, retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, and perhaps one or two other GOP candidates. If one of them gets above 50 percent of the vote, we have a winner. But if nobody gets above 50 percent — and that is the outcome everyone expects — there will be a runoff between the top two in December. Only then will the next senator from Louisiana be chosen.
Republicans need six seats to gain Senate control. What if they gain five elsewhere in the country on election day, while Louisiana heads into a December runoff? That will mean for four weeks Louisiana will be the center of the political universe, with the Landrieu race determining which party controls the Senate. It could happen.
At the moment, although there's a lot going on beneath the surface, the Senate race is not exactly a hot topic for the average Louisiana voter. Seven months before the election, there are anti-Obamacare ads running, but not much else that suggests a vigorous campaign. Landrieu and Cassidy are both in Washington when Congress is in session, and neither is holding big campaign rallies back home. That will come later.
Cassidy has held a bunch of town hall meetings, but Landrieu has basically been lying low. She doesn't hold many public events, and the ones she does attend are often announced at the last minute. Opposition "trackers" have a hard time figuring out her in-state schedule. Her campaign manager did not respond to repeated requests to talk, nor would anyone else associated with her discuss the race except under the label of "state Democratic strategist." It's even hard to find the Landrieu campaign physically. When I called Landrieu headquarters and asked where their office is, the receptionist said, "I can't give out that information, sir." Really? I said. You can't give out the address of the campaign headquarters? "No, sir."
As far as the polls are concerned, there haven't been many, but a survey released in early February by the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling showed the race virtually tied, with Landrieu at 45 percent and Cassidy at 44 percent. That was a significant weakening of Landrieu's position from last October, when PPP showed her leading Cassidy 48 percent to 41 percent. In the most recent survey, Landrieu's job approval number was 37 percent, which was worse even than Obama's, at 39 percent.
Democrats say Landrieu may look troubled now, but apart from everything else she still has two formidable assets: her name and her turnout machine. Landrieu is a pretty legendary political name in Louisiana. Her father Moon Landrieu, now in his 80s, was for eight years mayor of New Orleans and later a cabinet secretary under Jimmy Carter. Her brother Mitch has been mayor of New Orleans since 2010. And she has been in the Senate since first winning office in 1996. The Landrieus have been turning out the vote for a long time.
"That's the biggest thing … who can get their vote out," said Keith Villere, chairman of the St. Tammany Democratic Party, over lunch in Covington. "Because she's had a lot of experience statewide, she, her brother, her family, and the fact that I think she's done a good job for Louisiana, I think she'll be able to get that vote out." When I asked whether there is family political machine, Villere demurred. "I don't think I would categorize it as a Landrieu machine. I just think that she is well connected in Louisiana."
That she is. During several days in the state, I asked a lot of Louisiana Republicans — not officials, just politically interested citizens — who they think will win. They inevitably responded that they knew who they wanted to win. That was easy; they were Republicans. But I asked again: Not who you want to win, who do you think will win? And then, most said they just didn't know. It's close, they said, not sounding terribly optimistic. Mary Landrieu has always been a very tough opponent.
She is now, too. While Cassidy talks about better ideas, Landrieu is going about her campaign the old-fashioned way, bringing money to her state and using her influence on its behalf. Does that guarantee re-election? No. But there are a lot of reasons to think she'll be able to win one more time.
CORRECTION: Jason Dore is executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party. His title was incorrect in an earlier version of this post. The Washington Examiner regrets the error. This post was originally published at 8:15 p.m. April 1 and was updated at 8:25 p.m. April 2 to reflect the change.