The Democrats at Risk in Louisiana

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Left; Bilol Haber / AP: Kevin Dietsch / UPI / Landov

Louisiana state treasurer John Kennedy and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu.

However dim their congressional prospects look this election year, Republicans are at least feeling pretty good about the state of play in Louisiana. The G.O.P. swept all but two statewide offices in last fall's elections, including the governors' office, where U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal replaced one-term Democrat Kathleen Blanco. Now Republicans have their sights set on an even bigger prize: the Senate seat currently held by Democrat Mary Landrieu.

Conventional political wisdom pegs Landrieu as the most vulnerable of the 12 Senate Democrats up for reelection this year — a moderate whose views are nonetheless slightly left of most voters in the red-trending state. It's an impression eagerly put forward by the G.O.P., which has almost no chance of regaining a majority in the Senate this year but hopes to prevent Democrats from picking up enough seats to stop Republican filibusters. That's a tall order: saddled with George W. Bush's sagging approval rating, a slowing economy and a still unpopular war, the Republicans are defending 17 seats, and also hoping to retain another six open seats currently held by outgoing Republicans. As Rebecca Fisher, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, puts it: "Unfortunately, when you look at the map, we have few offensive positions this year. So, certainly, Louisiana is a state that we're focusing on as a pick-up opportunity."

Landrieu has never had an easy time of it. She won in 1996 with a margin of a few thousand votes; six years later, she narrowly fought back Republican efforts to oust her, including multiple visits by a then-popular President Bush, who campaigned hard for Landrieu's opponent. In both victories, turnout by African-American voters, especially in her hometown of New Orleans, was crucial. But Hurricane Katrina scattered many of those voters and disrupted the reliably Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts here. "Her ability to reorganize and rebuild the coalition that elected her — I think that's going to be the most critical element," says pollster and political analyst Silas Lee.

Still, Landrieu may be in a better position come November than many people think. Her brother, Mitch, easily won reelection as the state's Lieutenant Governor, proving the family name still carries a lot of political weight (their father, Moon Landrieu, served as Mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s). Louisiana's junior Senator, Republican David Vitter, may be too wounded by his recent sex scandal to campaign effectively for her opponent. And history is on her side: No sitting Louisiana Senator has been ousted since 1932. The retirement of Republican representatives Richard Baker and Jim McCrery — and the possible expulsion of indicted Democratic congressman William Jefferson — will leave the state with diminished clout on Capitol Hill at a time when Louisiana, still grappling from the aftermath of Katrina, needs all the influence it can muster. And Landrieu played a prominent role in passing a bill that will funnel billions in federal offshore oil and gas revenues to the state in coming years and in brokering bipartisan relief legislation that netted $110 billion in Gulf Coast recovery funds.

"A year ago, when people assessed the race, I think they thought she was more vulnerable than she is now," says Wayne Parent, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University. "She's still going to be in a tight race, as she has been the last couple of times, but a couple of things have happened in her favor. After Katrina, I think she's built up a reservoir of support as one of Louisiana's members in Congress who has seniority and the ability to help Louisiana through some tough times." Moreover, Parent says, the special election to fill Jindal's congressional seat and a protracted Democratic presidential primary season have kept the Senate race largely off the radar, preventing the anti-Landrieu forces from gaining much traction.

But that won't last for long. The national Republican Party is coalescing around Landrieu's only major opponent thus far, state treasurer John Kennedy, who, coincidentally, holds the office that Landrieu did when she was elected to the Senate. Kennedy, who as a Democrat failed to make the runoff in a 2004 bid to replace outgoing Democrat John Breaux — the seat now held by Vitter — appears to have only lukewarm support among hardcore conservatives (he switched his party affiliation before last year's statewide elections). Nevertheless, he has built up a lot of goodwill among Louisiana voters as a strong fiscal watchdog. "He's established himself as the elected official most likely to openly challenge the contentions" — and profligate spending habits — "of other public officials," says demographer and political analyst Elliott Stonecipher. "This is the guy that would call b.s. on anyone, and it works for him. The flip side is, the Democrats have a lot of videotape of John Kennedy sounding at least as liberal as Mary Landrieu in previous races."

So far, Kennedy has avoided the contentious social issues that have factored into many recent Louisiana races, instead playing up his image as an advocate for fiscal responsibility. "My beliefs are the same as they were four years ago," he says. "I'm very conservative, fiscally. I believe that government has a role to play in bettering American society, but its role is not infinite."

Kennedy promises to "talk about a lot of issues and values that are important to a lot of Louisianans" during the campaign, and he has resisted the temptation — so far — to take public potshots at Landrieu. But the NRSC is showing no such restraint: the committee's Web site has a section devoted to slamming Landrieu, which includes plenty of information on a $2 million earmark she obtained in 2001 for a Texas company that hosted a fund raiser for her.

The Landrieu campaign, while trying not to look overconfident, downplays the incident. Landrieu declined requests to be interviewed, but her campaign manager, Jay Howser, says her ability to get earmarks through will play well with voters. "I think the Republicans and Kennedy will throw the kitchen sink at her, but in the end the people of Louisiana are going to remember Senator Landrieu's strong record," says Howser. "She's been able to deliver for the state, and some of that is earmarks." Still, he says, "we know she's going to have a tough race. But she knows how to win in situations like that."