Political State

Landrieu Seeing Red

Mary Loretta Landrieu has few rivals for resiliency on the political stage. She has weathered two bitterly fought campaigns to win a pair of terms in one of the most exclusive clubs in America, but now the 49-year-old New Orleanian is snared in swirling electoral winds that have claimed a succession of federal Democrats as casualties. Only four members of her party representing states south of the Mason-Dixon line remain in the Senate.

In the last half-century, Landrieu has been the victor in the only close Louisiana Senate elections. She nipped Woody Jenkins by a scant 5,788 votes in 1996 and edged Suzanne Haik Terrell by 42,012 votes in 2002. The narrow triumph over Terrell may explain why the senator has been voting remarkably similar to her new Louisiana cohort in the chamber, staunch conservative David Vitter.

Both Landrieu and Vitter supported the confirmation of Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State and for sending class action lawsuits to federal courts. Landrieu was also one of only six Democrats to back Alberto Gonzales, President Bush's nominee for attorney general. Gonzales came under heavy scrutiny for his role in the recent Abu Ghraib torture controversy.

Landrieu and Barbara Boxer of California share gender, job description and party affiliation, but are showing little else in common. "The reason is simple," says longtime political consultant Bob Miller. "Landrieu represents a Red State and Boxer is a Senator in the bluest of Blue States."

Landrieu does not face the electorate until November 2008, but is keenly aware that her predecessors never lost focus on the next election. Louisiana Chemical Association President Dan Borne', who once worked for Sen. Russell Long, says Long told him the first two years of his term he was a statesman, the middle two years he was a politician and the last two years he was a prostitute.

Louisiana's political calculus was changed with the victory of Republican Vitter, who secured the seat held by Long and John Breaux for the past 56 years. Landrieu is also looking over her shoulder at freshman congressman Bobby Jindal. The 2002 gubernatorial candidate gained the First District U.S. House seat in a landslide and has not ruled out a bid to join Vitter in the Senate.

A generation ago, Southern Democrats ruled the U.S. Senate with names like Long, Fullbright, Stennis, Russell and Gore. Landrieu is currently joined on an endangered species list by Arkansas' Blanche Lambert Lincoln and Mark Pryor and Floridian Bill Nelson. When she looks east to Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia or west to Texas, there are no Democratic senators in neighboring states. Meanwhile, Sen. Vitter has proved that a well-financed GOP candidate can win convincingly in Louisiana.

For Landrieu, the danger in voting with the Republican majority too frequently is attracting opposition from the left and right. It is doubtful a candidate positioned to her left could win, but the challenger could ensure another December run-off and leave a wounded incumbent with a treacherous march to a third term.

Louisiana has not unseated a sitting U.S. senator in three-quarters of a century, so history favors a familiar name and face. Landrieu is a savvy political warrior, who secured a Louisiana House seat in New Orleans in 1979 when she was 23. She logged two terms in the state Legislature and two terms as Louisiana's treasurer before suffering her only electoral defeat in 1995.

A decade has elapsed since Landrieu ran third in the race for governor, finishing behind Mike Foster and Cleo Fields. She rode Bill Clinton's coattails into the U.S. Senate a year later as she squeezed by Jenkins on the same day that Clinton walloped Bob Dole in Louisiana by more than 215,000 votes.

On my Feb. 10 radio show, a pair of voters called in with differing opinions that Landrieu will likely hear when she returns to the campaign trail in three years. "I am a staunch liberal Democrat," said Martha from Prairieville. "Mary Landrieu should do the honorable thing and change over to the Republican Party. She is not a true Democrat. It is very, very disappointing to those of us who supported her and voted for her in the last election that she seems to be going to the other side. I just feel like she is sort of being a traitor to the Democrats. She is not supporting our views and philosophies. It's difficult for me to believe that anyone could support Gonzales or Condoleeza Rice for that matter. Who would have thought that she would be going to the conservative side and supporting their values?"

Eileen in Baton Rouge had a different view. "I think it would be incredibly simplistic for anyone to take two votes out of Mary's career and say she is voting with the president," she said. "She is an extremely complex and very talented politician, who grew up at the knee of the master, Moon Landrieu. You can bet your bippy that if Miss Landrieu strays from her typical liberal leanings she has very, very good reasons to do it, and it wouldn't be as simplistic as being a traitor. Landrieu has a philosophy and a political ability that far exceeds most people in Congress. She is very competent at being able to save her power. She is a consummate horse trader in the old tradition."

Landrieu is not the first U.S. senator from Louisiana to support Republican presidents. Long, Breaux and Bennett Johnston were not members of the Ted Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party, and they retained their seats by retreating from the liberal label as deftly as early evacuees from an approaching hurricane.

By 2008, Landrieu will have withstood the blustery Louisiana political winds for nearly three decades. Her fate is far from certain, but the votes she casts before Nov. 4, 2008 will play a crucial role in her political survival.