Landrieu Wins Louisiana Run-Off Race

A month after their nationwide triumph at the polls that included recapture of a majority in the U.S. Senate, Republicans were disappointed that they didn’t pick up yet another Senate seat in the final contest of 2002. By 52% to 48%, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu was reelected in a December 7 run-off race against GOP State Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell.

Republicans had made this showdown a nationwide cause. “We put in about $498,000, the legal maximum in coordinated expenditures in Louisiana,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Spokesman Dan Allen told HUMAN EVENTS. President Bush and Vice President Cheney both made appearances on Terrell’s behalf, and Bush cut a television spot for her.

But in the end, Landrieu benefited from a strong turnout among reliable Democratic voters and an unexpected and highly questionable ploy concerning sugar imports from Mexico. Also, as one Republican operative put it, Terrell was “not exactly the best candidate we could have fielded.”

In November’s primary election, when Landrieu took just 46% of the vote (with 50% needed to avoid a run-off), only 40% of eligible black voters turned out, while 48% of eligible whites went to the polls. Many black leaders were turned off because Landrieu campaigned, as columnist Bob Novak put it, as “Bush’s best friend in Louisiana.” Landrieu was also estranged from powerful black State Sen. Cleo Fields, whom she had refused to endorse when he ran for governor in 1995.

In the run-off, however, Landrieu made no pretense of being a closet Bush-backer. She even bowed to pressure from liberal national civil rights groups and voted against appellate court nominee Dennis Shedd. (See rollcall, page 26.) She also made peace with Fields following a conference call that included the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Following that call, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus campaigned on her behalf.

Moreover, local black ministers worked hard to turn out black voters, not an easy job in a run-off election. In the end, although precise figures are unavailable, they were successful. Terrell pollster Vern Kennedy says black turnout December 7 increased significantly from November 5, while white turnout was down.

According to conservative political operative Rick Sellers in a report for the Free Congress Foundation, however, some of the campaigning prior to the run-off appeared to violate IRS regulations prohibiting political activity by churches.

“The press reported that Congressional Black Caucus leader Rep. James Clyburn [D.-S.C.]-on the Sunday before the election-spoke in support of Sen. Landrieu from the pulpit of the Baton Rouge Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church,” Sellers said. “The senator herself also talked to the 800 church attendees. Clearly this is illegal activity, but the media reported on another dozen church speeches by Sen. Landrieu, never mentioning their illegal nature.”

Sellers last week filed a formal complaint with the IRS about the church campaigning.

Also, the Landrieu camp caught Terrell off guard with a TV blitz charging that the White House had struck a “secret deal” to double Mexican sugar imports and deal a devastating blow to Louisiana’s 27,000 sugar farmers. Landrieu, the ad said, would put “Louisiana first” while Terrell would be a rubber-stamp for the administration.

White House spokesmen denied there was any “deal” and the sole evidence for Landrieu’s last-minute claim was an article in the obscure Mexican newspaper Reform that named no source for the story. But the spot clearly worked to the Democrat’s advantage. As her brother Mitch Landrieu told reporters, “[I]t proved our point that a senator is supposed to be for Louisiana first and Suzie and George Bush are joined at the hip.”

Terrell had some flaws as a candidate. While most conservatives who had backed other candidates in the general rallied to her in the run-off, doubts lingered about her pro-life stand and her opposition to the activist gay agenda. Terrell had said she was pro-life “with no exceptions” but was haunted by reports she had sponsored a Planned Parenthood banquet in 1994 (the GOP hopeful insisted that a secretary had given the group permission to use her name without permission). While attacking Landrieu for her refusal to support a measure denying federal funds to public schools that bar the Boy Scouts from using their facilities, Terrell was also one of four Republican Senate candidates in the nation who had the endorsement of the pro-gay Log Cabin Republicans.

“And Suzie actually was taking a nap on Election Day while Landrieu was shaking hands at McDonald’s!” said one exasperated campaign worker.