Washington Watch: Racism comments in BR impact US Senate race

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., isn’t facing re-election for nearly another 18 months, but don’t tell that to national Republicans and Democrats.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is busy putting out a slew of attacks against Landrieu, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has held its own, taking shots at her top opponent thus far, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge.

The most-recent example came this past week when the GOP went after Landrieu, not for her own words, but for comments made by Louisiana Democratic Party Chairwoman and state Sen. Karen Peterson, of New Orleans.

In lamenting the state Legislature again voting down state adopting the federal expansion of Medicaid coverage for residents, Peterson complained that some legislators privately told her they could not support it because they could not tell their constituents they voted for “Obamacare.”

“It comes down to the race of the president of the United States, which causes people to disconnect and step away from the substance of the bill,” Peterson said in the state Senate.

Republicans seized on the comment, arguing that Peterson was calling Louisianians racists. They quickly shifted and pointed to Landrieu.

“The suggestion that more than half of the people in Louisiana are racist because of their concerns is absurd, but it raises serious questions about where Mary Landrieu stands,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Press Secretary Brook Hougesen said in a prepared statement. “Does Sen. Landrieu believe that folks in Louisiana opposed to Obamacare are racists? Landrieu cast the deciding vote to make Obamacare law, and she owes it to voters to weigh in on the offensive comments made by the head of her Democratic party.”

Despite media requests, Landrieu has not — and may not — weigh in on the topic. But she has continued to support the federal Affordable Care Act and she has repeatedly criticized Gov. Bobby Jindal for not adopting the Medicaid expansion. The governor has argued it would eventually prove too costly. The health care law would expand Medicaid eligibility to include people who previously made too much money to qualify, but not enough to afford adequate health coverage.

Regardless of the issue, the matter shows the GOP is going hard after Landrieu and is trying to connect her to any controversies regarding other Democrats in the state.

Kirby Goidel, a political analyst and director of the LSU Public Policy Research Lab, said this is just the beginning.

“It’s going to get nasty,” Goidel said. “The control of the (U.S.) Senate is going to play out in the next election cycle. This is one of those seats they (Republicans) have to go after and they have to go after hard.”

The GOP will repeatedly try to define Landrieu as a “cookie-cutter Democrat” while Landrieu will tout herself as a moderate Democrat who puts Louisiana interests first, he said. “Is Mary a national Democrat or a Louisiana voice?” Goidel added.

But Landrieu isn’t the only one being targeted. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put out attacks against Cassidy in recent days accusing him of trying to cut federal student loans for college students and for opposing federal funding for improving hurricane prediction systems.

In January, Cassidy voted against the Hurricane Sandy supplemental aid funding arguing that it was too vague and costly, but the bill included weather prediction funding upgrades. The DSCC made sure to point out the latter again with the beginning of the 2013 hurricane season.

Most recently, Cassidy joined other House Republicans in voting for a plan they argue would make federal student loan funding more sustainable long term, but the plan involves some funding cutbacks.

Federal student loan interest rates, not counting outstanding loans, are set to double on July 1 without congressional action. President Obama is fighting to keep the current rate structure in place.

“Once again, Bill Cassidy is siding with his fellow extreme and out-of-touch House Republicans as he sides with special interests over Louisiana’s middle-class families,” DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky said in a prepared statement. “Cassidy voted to make college more expensive for students and put an extra burden on Louisiana families.”

And so the U.S. Senate race continues.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.