Land of the Lost: Landrieu in Louisiana

Last November, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) was re-elected to her third term. Once again, Landrieu was able to edge an under-funded Republican candidate, State Treasurer John Kennedy.  She defeated John Kennedy with only 52% of the vote, but for Landrieu it was a landslide. In her two previous U.S. Senate elections, Landrieu won by even smaller margins.  

In her career, she has been able to defeat Republicans by championing her independent and moderate views. She has also benefited by receiving the endorsement of prominent Republican elected officials. For example, in the last election, Landrieu was endorsed by the Republican Sheriff of the largest parish in Louisiana and the President of a large suburban parish outside of New Orleans.

Some moderate Republicans have been attracted to Landrieu because throughout her Senate career, she has strived to appear moderate, even though her heart is clearly on the left. In the early part of her political career, as a Louisiana State Representative and Louisiana State Treasurer, Landrieu was not bashful about expressing her liberal beliefs, but she is much more careful today as a United States Senator. In 2008, her American Conservative Union rating was only 32%, certainly left of center, but nowhere near the liberal rating of Ted Kennedy or Barack Obama.

Luckily for Landrieu, her next election is five years away. Without question, her popularity has dipped in the past year. In a July 2009 survey by Public Policy Polling, Landrieu’s approval rating is only 43%, one point below the much maligned U.S. Senator David Vitter and a full 12 points below Governor Bobby Jindal.

Clearly Senator Landrieu is out of step with the majority of Louisiana voters. In the first six months of the Obama administration, Senator Landrieu has generally supported most of the President’s proposals. She was a proud supporter of his controversial $787 billion stimulus bill, touting the money that was sent to Louisiana for infrastructure projects.

Whenever she supports the President on a particular issue, she is opposing the majority of voters in Louisiana. In the Public Policy Polling survey, President Obama only received a 44% approval rating statewide. In the last election, John McCain handily defeated Barack Obama in Louisiana, so it is not surprising that the President’s approval rating is rather low in the state.

This political scenario creates a difficult situation for Landrieu, who tries to support Obama and the Democratic Party whenever possible, but does not want to appear too liberal. On issue after issue, Landrieu must walk a political tightrope. She supported the President on the stimulus bill and will vote for the Sotomayor nomination, but her position on the union card check bill and the healthcare reform proposal are unknown. On occasion, Landrieu has been forced to oppose President Obama. She has publicly expressed her opposition to the cap and trade bill that passed the House, a move that was politically necessary in a state dominated by the oil and gas industry.

As the Senator tries to placate her party and the President as much as possible, she faces the possibility of angering her constituents. With the high stakes healthcare bill being debated across the country, her tightrope act is getting more difficult. At a recent forum in Reserve, Louisiana, Landrieu introduced four members of the Obama cabinet who were in the state to discuss the healthcare proposal being debated in Congress. To the surprise of the panel and Senator Landrieu, the vast majority of the audience was staunchly opposed to the bill. Most of the audience members loudly denounced the bill and one activist shouted to the panel to give the President the message that “It will be a cold day in hell before he socializes my country.”

In the last six months, a vibrant tea party movement has spread throughout Louisiana. Conservatives dominated the last session of the Louisiana Legislature and all of the proposals to raise taxes were defeated. Since Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana has become a more Republican and conservative state. In the last four years, the population of New Orleans has decreased by over 150,000 residents and many of the voters who left the state were liberal Democrats, primarily African Americans, and the base of support for Senator Landrieu.

Despite her difficulties in Louisiana, Senator Landrieu is a skilled politician. She has been able to get re-elected even though she supported liberal Democratic presidential candidates such as Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama. She has been helped along the way by weak Republican opposition and political support from moderate Republicans.

However, in the upcoming healthcare debate, she faces her biggest challenge. As the debate intensifies and dominates Capitol Hill will Landrieu succumb to pressure from her party and her President? Or, will she vote with her constituents who are largely opposed to the expensive nationalized health care plan?

According to LSU-Shreveport Political Science Professor Jeff Sadow, Landrieu faces an important political test. “Five years is almost an eternity in politics, but how she votes on this matter, given the magnitude of its importance, is something that will be remembered for a long time. Which probably explains why, she has not given any commitment to supporting what… (President) Obama is pushing, despite some heavy-handed Democrat tactics against her. Seeing the way the wind is blowing now may make her even more hesitant to support Obama on this, and thereby save the state and nation a lot of agony.”

Landrieu is always caught between her true liberal philosophy and the more conservative leanings of the voters of Louisiana. She is trapped between the liberal platform of her party and the more traditional views of her constituents. Senator Landrieu is never in a comfortable political place, as she is constantly weaving around on each tough issue.

Landrieu rarely takes a hard stance on any issue, she likes to be fluid so she can adapt to the shifting political winds. Eventually, she has to make a decision and the time will soon come for her to cast a vote on the healthcare bill. In the next few weeks, the eyes of Louisiana and the nation will be on Senator Landrieu as she will cast a vote of major significance to the economy of this country and to her political career.