Senator Landrieu Keeps Her Distance from Obama

Why is U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) running away from Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)?  There’s no denying the fact that she is.  Landrieu — who was listed as a sponsor in the invitation to an August Obama event in Washington — had her name removed.  

Has the possibility of a reverse-coattails effect from the Obama campaign caused this level of fear among Democrats?

Landrieu is accustomed to close elections. In 1995, she lost the Governor’s race by a razor slim margin, almost making the run-off. The next year, she came back and was elected to the U.S. Senate in a disputed 5,000 vote victory over conservative broadcaster Woody Jenkins. In 2002, the GOP selected a more moderate opponent for Landrieu, then Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell, but Landrieu again prevailed 52-48 percent.
Now, Landrieu faces Republican State Treasurer John Kennedy in another close re-election battle. Most polls indicate a tight race with Landrieu slightly ahead, although one recent poll gave Landrieu a double digit lead. By the time November arrives, most political analysts believe this will be a very close election.

Both political parties have targeted Louisiana. Republicans believe Landrieu is the most vulnerable Democrat in the U.S. Senate and want to score a coveted victory in a year in which they will probably lose many congressional races. Of course, Democrats want to retain the seat and possibly build a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats in the U.S. Senate.

An incumbent U.S. Senator with seniority who has a relatively centrist voting record should be a strong favorite for re-election. Landrieu has tried to follow the formula used by former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, who was politically invincible. Why hasn’t it worked for Landrieu?

What has complicated matters for the incumbent is that the population displacement from Hurricane Katrina has removed thousands of Democratic voters from the state. In this election, Landrieu must earn the votes of Independents and Republicans who have not cast a vote for her previously.

Kennedy’s best chance for victory may be to tie Landrieu to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who trails his Republican opponent John McCain by 16 points in the latest poll of Louisiana voters. In fact, the state is so securely in McCain’s corner that Obama will probably not even campaign there in the fall. While Landrieu wants to benefit from the strong turnout of African Americans going to the polls to support Obama, she does not want to turn off moderate or conservative white voters who will be supporting McCain. It is a tough political tightrope that she will have to walk.  

An example of Landrieu’s dilemma occurred when the “Lipstick, Laughter and Libations” fundraiser for Barack Obama was scheduled for mid-August in Washington, D.C. When the event was first announced online, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu was listed on the host committee.

The D.C. event would usually go unnoticed in Landrieu’s home state of Louisiana, but not this time. Almost immediately after the announcement was made, Kennedy was spreading the word back home. Kennedy’s motivations are clear: he wants to link Landrieu and Obama at every opportunity, and for good reason. According to a June poll by Southern Media and Opinion Research, 53% of Louisiana voters have an unfavorable view of  Obama, and 41% have an extremely unfavorable view of the Illinois senator.    

Not surprisingly, Landrieu’s name was quickly removed from the event host committee. According to Landrieu spokesman Scott Schneider, the senator was not supposed to host the event and her inclusion on the host committee was a mistake. Eventually, the Obama campaign was contacted and a revised invitation was posted online.

According to Lenny Alcivar, Kennedy campaign spokesman, "Senators, especially those running for re-election, don’t get listed as fundraising co-hosts for presidential candidates by ‘accident.’" It is quite interesting that a sitting U.S. Senator would remove her name from the host committee of a fundraising event for the presidential nominee of her own party. In Alcivar’s view, Landrieu allowed Obama to list her as a co-host “because she thought Louisianans might not notice.” Kennedy’s campaign believes that once the connection was exposed, Landrieu had no choice but to distance herself from Obama. Some observers have characterized Obama as an “albatross” around Landrieu’s neck as she seeks re-election.

Fearing for her political survival, Landrieu has not exactly rolled out the red carpet for Obama to campaign on her behalf in Louisiana. In fact, Obama has not visited Louisiana since a brief visit to Tulane University in early February. He turned downed an invitation from Google to participate in a presidential candidate town hall meeting in New Orleans and also rejected a request from broadcaster Tavis Smiley to attend the State of the Black Union forum in New Orleans.  

 Landrieu appears to prefer to run her own race without the Democratic presidential nominee getting involved. While John Kennedy has frequently attended high profile events with GOP presidential nominee John McCain and was the beneficiary of a high dollar fundraiser with President George W. Bush, Landrieu has not been seen anywhere near Barack Obama.

While Landrieu technically supports Obama for president, she is not a high profile or long term backer of her Illinois colleague. When Landrieu eventually endorsed Obama, he had already secured the Democratic nomination. In her public speeches and appearances in Louisiana, Landrieu seldom if ever refers to her support for Obama or agreement with his positions.

Landrieu is well aware that if she is linked too closely with Obama, it could mean certain defeat in this election. Over the next few weeks, Landrieu will be trying to run away from Obama, while her opponent will try desperately to convince voters that the incumbent supports the liberal policies of a candidate who is unpopular in Louisiana.