Stephanie Grace:‘Landslide Landrieu’ again?

Stuart Rothenberg, an influential Washington, D.C., election analyst, recently switched his assessment of Louisiana’s 2014 U.S. Senate contest from “Tilt Democrat,” to “Pure Toss Up,” but Rothenberg’s reasons for downgrading Democrat Mary Landrieu’s prospects had little to do with her, and much to do with her party.

Rothenberg cited a new political narrative in national politics, from Republican obstruction of President Barack Obama’s agenda to administration controversies over the IRS, the seizure of journalists’ phone records and Benghazi, and argued that the climate for Republicans in general has improved.

Still, it’s worth taking a deep breath here. While Rothenberg may well have a point about the latest Washington storyline, here in Louisiana, Landrieu remains what she’s always been: Politically strong, and also perennially vulnerable. So if her re-election race is shaping up as a squeaker, well, what else is new?

In fact, while issues and controversies have waxed and waned, Landrieu’s particular narrative has remained stubbornly consistent.

Some voters don’t want to be represented by a Democrat under any circumstance, and some feel that way about Republicans. Then there are the ones who decide such elections, many of whom often vote GOP but are also willing to cross the line. Those are the people Landrieu is courting when she tries to carefully balance her party’s ideological agenda with a focus on state-centric and bipartisan issues such as supporting offshore oil, preserving subsidized flood insurance and passing the RESTORE Act.

It’s true that the state has trended more conservative since she was first elected in 1996. It’s also a fact that Congressional campaigns, and Congress itself, have grown more partisan over time. But Landrieu has also risen in seniority and sway in the Senate, and her centrism has made her vote easy to leverage. Her track record in bringing home the bacon has earned her the support of several prominent GOP donors, including Lockport shipbuilder Boysie Bollinger and New Orleans developer Joe Canizaro.

Despite the overall trend, Landrieu’s approval rating actually remains on par with most of the state’s GOP politicians — with the notable exception of Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose numbers have plummeted — according to a widely-cited March poll of 600 Louisiana voters by Southern Media & Opinion Research. Landrieu earned a thumbs-up from 56 percent of the poll’s participants, making her pretty much as popular as her rival, Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter, who won an easy re-election bid in 2010 by campaigning almost exclusively on his GOP partisanship.

Yet the poll also provided cause for concern for Landrieu and her backers. Just 37 percent said they definitely planned to vote for her re-election next year, while 24 percent said they’d consider someone else and 34 percent said they’d definitely support another candidate.

The poll also sent mixed signals on the issue that may well dominate the debate, particularly with her best-known Republican opponent, physician and U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy.

Fifty-six percent of the voters interviewed said Landrieu’s backing of the president’s health-care reform law made them less likely to back her. On the other hand, opinion on her criticism of Jindal’s staunch refusal to accept federal money to expand Medicaid coverage, a key component of the law deemed optional by the U.S. Supreme Court, was evenly split. By all appearances, Landrieu thinks this is a winning issue for her, and she’ll surely continue to hammer Republicans on their resistance to covering more Louisiana residents.

They, in turn, will hammer her, not only for voting with Democrats at least some of the time, but for simple association. Most recently, the National Republican Senatorial Committee smelled opportunity in the assertion on the state Senate floor by Louisiana Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson that opposition to the health-care law stems from “the race of this African-American president.”

Of course, Landrieu’s ultimate prospects may boil down to circumstances outside any of this. She may sink or swim based simply on whether she can motivate the Democrats who turned out in force to support Obama — and her — in 2008, even though the president won’t be on the ballot this time. After all, close elections are often decided less on issues and more on turnout.

Landrieu has three Senate victories under her belt, but she’s never topped 52 percent, a record that’s prompted her to jokingly refer to herself as “Landslide Landrieu.” So while we’re talking predictions, here’s an easy one: Landrieu won’t be losing that nickname any time soon.

Stephanie Grace’s email address is sgrace@theadvocate.com.