You could call it the unofficial launch of Sen. Mary Landrieu’s re-election campaign.
The Louisiana senator came to a meeting of the Independent Women’s Organization in eastern New Orleans on Saturday and delivered a stark warning to the state’s Democrats, telling a ballroom packed with local political players that it’s either her or another vote for the tea party in the Senate.
And as always for Landrieu, who will be asking voters for a fourth term next fall, it will be a close-fought thing, another expensive struggle to hold one of the last Democratic Senate seats in the South as Republicans fight for a majority in the chamber.
“When you look at that map and they start putting down millions and millions of dollars where they’re going to go after, I’m targeted every time,” Landrieu said. “I’ve had probably $60 million to $75 million spent against me, telling people all sorts of horrible things.”
But, Landrieu said, “I do it joyfully,” pointing out that if not for her, the Senate seat could have gone to David Duke, the notorious former Ku Klux Klan leader who ran in 1990, or Woody Jenkins, a state representative she beat in 1996 who “was in the tea party before there was a tea party.”
Landrieu’s remarks, perhaps her most combative this election cycle, come at a busy time in the Senate, with a long debate set to begin over immigration reform and a fight to block steep increases in flood insurance premiums, a battle that could affect thousands of Louisiana residents.
In the meantime, Landrieu also has family headaches to cope with after her 21-year-old son, Frank Conner Snellings, was arrested for allegedly driving drunk in the French Quarter. Landrieu mentioned the arrest briefly on Saturday, saying she was “terribly disappointed” with him and that he will be “fully held accountable by the law.”
But Landrieu made it clear that she already is focused intently on keeping her seat, facing a challenge from Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, and perhaps others. She mentioned frequent trips outside of Washington to raise money, reminded her audience of the paper-thin margins of victory that have sustained her thus far and even collected a few checks from supporters before leaving the stage.
State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, introduced Landrieu with a sharply worded battle cry, framing her re-election to the Senate as the state party’s top priority.
“The most important thing that we have to do in the not-too-distant future to move Louisiana and all of our communities forward is to re-elect Senator Mary Landrieu in 2014,” Peterson said.
Imagine, she said, leaving U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, as Louisiana’s senior member of the Senate, a prospect that drew audible groans from the largely Democratic audience.
“OK, so that scares you,” Peterson said. “And it should.”
She pointed out that Democrats will be defending 21 Senate seats next year as they try to maintain a majority and will be losing a slew of incumbents to retirement.
“It’s going to be a dogfight to keep control of the U.S. Senate,” she said.
Landrieu’s speech carried the same note of warning. She argued that none of her Republican challengers would have been able to harness the millions of dollars that have poured into Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina and pointed out that President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul cleared the filibuster threshold in the Senate by only a single vote.
“I am so glad that I am there to vote on these bills that have just a magnitude of impact,” she said.
Of course, her opponents will be pointing out the same votes as they try to unseat her, banking on potent conservative opposition to Obama’s health care reforms and gun control measures among other things. Louisiana Republicans have aimed a steady stream of criticism at Landrieu, hoping that linking her record in the Senate to Obama’s agenda will weaken her support in a state where the president is unpopular.
Landrieu struck a defiant tone. With a $5 million war chest already established, she said she plans to raise another $100,000 every week for the next year, aiming to gather at least another $5 million.
Referring to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who blocked efforts during this year’s legislative session in Baton Rouge to expand the federal government’s Medicaid program in line with Obama’s health care overhaul, Landrieu said, “What this governor has done and what the tea party threatens to do to undermine the safety net for the middle class in this country is breathtakingly cruel.
“If they’re going to do it,” she said. “They’re going to do it over my dead body.”