Louisiana expected to be a battleground in 2014 U.S. Senate race

Both parties consider Landrieu’s seat key

More than a year before the actual U.S. Senate election, the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity launched television attacks against Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., for her support of “Obamacare.”

Then, a Democratic super PAC, the Senate Majority PAC, aired TV commercials beginning in December blaming U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, for the government shutdown.

Meanwhile, the national Republican and Democratic parties are signing up many hundreds of volunteers to focus on door-knocking and much more in every Louisiana voting precinct for the 2014 Senate campaign.

The Democrats have the “Campaign for Louisiana.” The GOP is starting the “Project Geaux Red” campaign.

The end result means tens of millions of dollars are being funneled into Louisiana for a critical U.S. Senate race that could determine which party controls the Senate in 2015. More outside spending is allowed because of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which allows some third-party groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns because of free-speech protections.

“I expect tons of outside spending in a way Louisiana has never really seen because control of the Senate is hanging in the balance,” said Kirby Goidel, a political analyst and professor at LSU.

“It’s going to be a very expensive race,” he said. “The campaign starts far earlier, and people are going to get weary. It’s going to have an effect on voter fatigue.”

The open primary election is slated for Nov. 4 and a runoff, if needed, is Dec. 6.

Apart from Landrieu and Cassidy, the only other candidate actively participating in the race is Republican Rob Maness, of Madisonville, a retired Air Force colonel. Maness has not had much fundraising success thus far, but he does have the far-right Senate Conservatives Fund helping him raise money now.

The ground games

While radio and television commercials are a key part of the Senate race, the national Republican and Democratic parties are building small armies of supporters in Louisiana to try to win the election.

The Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are all closely eyeing the Louisiana race and investing heavily.

“It’s very unprecedented. We’re there earlier than ever before,” said Michael Short, the regional press secretary for the Republican National Committee. “We’re taking this race seriously. We understand we have to knock off incumbent Democrats to win back the Senate.”

The three top targets are southern Democrats: Landrieu and Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Mary Pryor, D-Ark.

Short said the GOP already has hundreds of volunteers lined up, with a goal of swelling those ranks to “thousands,” eventually. The party is using a “precinct model” to target voters individually in each voting precinct, and to figure out which voters can be won over and which ones need a little extra encouragement to get out and vote.

“We really haven’t seen this level of engagement in Louisiana in years past,” Short said, arguing that grass-roots enthusiasm is high and that the 2014 election will provide a different result than the past three Senate elections that Landrieu has won. The GOP also is homing in on minority outreach more than ever, he said.

“She’s never had to face the voters after supporting President Barack Obama 95 percent of the time,” Short happily adds. “It’s going to be the central theme in this race.”

On the other side of the race, Andrew Zucker recently moved to New Orleans to serve as the communications director for the Democrats’ Campaign for Louisiana to support Landrieu. Zucker came fresh off of working as the press secretary for Ed Markey’s successful Senate race in Massachusetts.

The Democrats have already signed up close to 500 volunteers, and campaign coordinators are already set up in key geographic spots throughout the state.

An “enormous coordinated effort” has been in the works since early 2013, Zucker said, and will only continue to grow as the campaign launches into a much higher gear early next year.

“Our ground game will be unmatched in 2014. We’re coordinating from every corner of the state,” Zucker said. “We’re taking nothing for granted.”

Zucker said Landrieu will continue to grow her “broad base of support” of Democrats, independents and some Republicans who appreciate her work for Louisiana and her support of the oil-and-gas industry.

Landrieu could take over as chairwoman of the influential U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee as soon as next year.

“Every single cycle, Republicans put a target on Sen. Landrieu’s back and try to paint her as a vulnerable target,” Zucker said. “And every single cycle she has proven them wrong, and 2014 isn’t going to be any different.”

The outside influences

The National Republican Senatorial Committee ran the first anti-Landrieu campaign commercial for the 2014 cycle way back in August, but then the nonprofit, private advocacy groups joined in on the Landrieu attacks.

The billionaire, conservative activist Koch brothers — David and Charles — of Koch Industries, based in Wichita, Kan., co-founded the Virginia-based Americans for Prosperity group years ago. The political advocacy organization already spent more than $2 million in Louisiana with commercials targeting Landrieu, mostly for her initial and continued support of the Affordable Care Act.

Then, another third-party group, the Judicial Crisis Network, based in Washington, D.C. started airing ads criticizing Landrieu for supporting Obama’s judicial nominees. In recent articles appearing in publications that tout a conservative ideology, the group’s chief counsel, Carrie Severino, who attended Michigan State and Harvard Law School before clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, faulted Landrieu for voting to confirm judges whose views on abortion and religious liberty differ from the group’s stances. “That doesn’t sound like mainstream Louisiana values to me,” Severino wrote.

Zucker said he expects certain “out-of-state billionaires” to continue trying to influence the U.S. Senate race through the election.

As of the end of September, Landrieu was besting Cassidy in campaign fundraising. She reported a $5.78 million war chest for the 2014 election, compared with $3.4 million for Cassidy.

But LSU’s Goidel argued that conservatives have been more effective at using outside advocacy groups and super PACS than have Democrats. As such, he suggested that much of Landrieu’s fundraising advantage will be offset.

“I think it’s going to be a lot more level than if you’re just looking at the candidates’ totals,” Goidel said.

Cassidy did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Landrieu also acknowledged the “challenge” of third-party groups going after her.

“Every race presents its own set of challenges,” she said. “One of them is this is post-Citizens United and so there … is the possibility of unlimited, undisclosed secret money coming into this race, which makes it very difficult to fight against. But that’s one of the challenges.

“On the other hand, being in the top 18 or top 20 of all the senators because of my seniority, this election gives me an opportunity to really talk about how important Louisiana having that energy gavel is. And so there are pros and cons of it. You just have to take every election the way the cards are dealt and do the best you can.”

She said she feels “very good” about the race. “It’s going to be close and tough, but I feel good about it,” she said.

But the attacks will keep on coming.

The latest one is that the fact-checking news organization, PolitiFact, awarded its “Lie of the Year” to Obama for promising that under the Affordable Care Act, people would be able to keep their health insurance if they liked it. In Louisiana, nearly 93,000 individuals were having their individual health plans canceled for not complying with the minimum Affordable Care Act coverage standards, although the president is letting insurance companies continue such plans for a year.

The GOP is calling it Obama’s and Landrieu’s “Lie of the Year.”