Stephanie Grace: Landrieu gets mixed news on campaign

Associated Press file photo by Evan Vucci -- U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. Show caption
Associated Press file photo by Evan Vucci -- U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

It’s been a topsy-turvy stretch in the life of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s re-election campaign — at once the best of times and the worst.

On the plus side, a new poll by the New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation gave Landrieu a decisive lead over U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, and her other challengers. Landrieu had the support of 42 percent of the 946 registered voters interviewed. Cassidy trailed far behind with 18 percent, followed by state Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington, with five percent and retired Col. Rob Maness with four. The poll also pegged her approval rating at 49 percent, ahead of both Gov. Bobby Jindal and President Barack Obama.

Landrieu continues to get mileage out of her new post as Energy Committee chairwoman, regularly pointing out it took two decades to reclaim a spot once held bySen. J. Bennett Johnston, as well as that symbolic target that Vladimir Putin placed on her back that she boasts of wearing with pride.

Her new television ad, which is in wide circulation, trumpets her campaign’s main themes: She’s in Washington to represent her state, not her party, even — or maybe especially — when that means taking on her party’s president, and she gets results. “For years, she’s forced Washington to respect Louisiana,” the commercial claims.

She even snagged an enviable Wall Street Journal article painting the lifelong Democrat as an unexpected darling of big business, particularly the energy industry. The story noted that Landrieu’s raised nearly five times as much campaign cash as Cassidy has from corporate interests, and is backed by trade groups such as the American Chemical Association and the American Petroleum Institute. It also pointed to an obvious irony, that some of the same interests working to give Republicans control of the Senate are in her corner.

But for every piece of good news the Landrieu campaign got, it seemed there was an equal and opposite nugget of bad news.

Political analysts from both the New York Times and the Washington Post downgraded her from one of the most endangered incumbent Democrats this year to top of the vulnerable list. The Times, in its new “Upshot” political blog, put the GOP’s chance of victory at 64 percent, an eye-popping number despite Landrieu’s long history of very close calls. The analysis was based on “the latest polls and reams of historical data,” according to the site.

There was unwelcome news too in the New York Times/Kaiser poll: Any time an incumbent polls below 50 percent, it could mean trouble. And while Landrieu’s approval rating is pretty strong, nearly as many voters, 45 percent, said they disapprove of her performance. That doesn’t give her much room to grow.

Landrieu’s ad, which started running after the poll ended, may have hit all the campaign’s talking points, but it also played to those of her her rivals. Opposition researchers easily caught that she’d re-enacted a Senate hearing for the cameras, and even fixed a mistake in her original statement. The campaign pulled the ill-advised maneuver because original footage from congressional hearings can’t be used in ads, but it still allowed Republicans to accuse her of being a seasoned actress — not just in her ad but in her claim to be “Louisiana’s voice” rather than a rubber stamp for Obama’s goals.

Meanwhile, the third-party attacks from groups such as Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners continue to clog the airwaves.

And last week came news that exposed yet another flank: Obama’s decision to put off a final call on the completing the Keystone XL pipeline indefinitely, or presumably until after the fall election, anyway. Landrieu still gets to go around demanding that Obama act, and will presumably use the platform of her committee to push the issue. But the delay invites opponents to question her claim of effectiveness. “Grandstanding doesn’t produce results,” Cassidy campaign manager Joel DiGrado wrote in a fundraising plea for his boss, in which he also called Landrieu “Obama’s Energy Chair.”

Speaking of Cassidy, the news hasn’t been so great for him either. His 18 percent showing in the new poll suggests he has yet to make much of an impression at all.

That may be because he’s not advertising — although those outside groups are doing plenty of the dirty work for him — and is sticking mostly to boilerplate GOP positions. The one exception is his recent involvement in blocking catastrophic flood insurance increases.

That’s Landrieu’s longtime issue as well, but by helping close the deal in the House while she led in the Senate, Cassidy got to position himself as her equal in influence and home state focus.

Still, unless something truly unexpected happens, Cassidy’s image doesn’t matter nearly as much. At heart, the question for Louisiana voters is the same one facing those business leaders interviewed by the Wall Street Journal: Is this election a referendum on Landrieu’s party, or just on her?

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.