Magazine article Politics Magazine

Winning the Louisiana Senate Race: How Mary Landrieu Used Message Discipline to Overcome McCain's Coattails

Magazine article Politics Magazine

Winning the Louisiana Senate Race: How Mary Landrieu Used Message Discipline to Overcome McCain's Coattails

Article excerpt

The 2008 U.S. Senate election in Louisiana was one of the banner races of the cycle. Incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, a centrist Democrat first elected to the post in 1996, was seeking a third term. Early on, the race became the No. 1 Senate target for national Republicans. Eventually, it was their only pick-up target among the 12 Democratic Senate seats on the ballot.

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GOP strategists looked forward to the slugfest. Here was a contest where they could play offensively. Given the defensive crouch in which the party found itself in Senate contests from New Hampshire to New Mexico, Oregon to Virginia, Colorado to North Carolina, it was a unique ray of hope--something to point to when pundits asked about the growing list of Republican vulnerabilities.

Of course, Landrieu ultimately won the race on Nov. 4. But pulling off that victory was no easy task. It took $11 million, prudent strategy and a highly disciplined message campaign that stressed her record of fighting and delivering for Louisiana. It also took a campaign that stayed on the offense despite heavy opposition attacks.

In the Crosshairs

Mary Landrieu was elected to the Louisiana state House at age 23, when she upset an incumbent. Her father, Moon, had served as mayor of New Orleans (1970-1978) and done a stint as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Jimmy Carter's cabinet.

Landrieu was elected state treasurer in 1987. In 1995, the 39-year old Landrieu ran for governor, barely missing a runoff berth in Louisiana's all-party, open-election system. She jumped back into the campaign fray the following year when she sought the seat vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston. Landrieu edged state Rep. Woody Jenkins, her major Republican rival and a favorite of social conservatives, by less than 6,000 votes out of 1.7 million cast.

In her 2002 Senate reelection, Landrieu faced three Republican challengers in the open primary. Running first against the field with 46 percent of the vote, Landrieu failed to win the requisite majority to avoid a December runoff with state Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell, a Republican. National Republicans threw everything they had at the Louisiana runoff but Landrieu held on--winning reelection by 51.7 percent.

Looking toward 2008, Republicans saw Landrieu as vulnerable. That she had won both of her Senate races with slim margins was naturally attractive. But there were two other factors that got the party's attention.

First, the state's recent electoral history. Though Democrat Bill Clinton carried Louisiana in 1992 and 1996, Republican George Bush won the Bayou State handily in 2000 and 2004, the last time by a 15-point margin. Also in 2004, David Vitter became the first Republican ever popularly elected to the U.S. Senate from Louisiana. In 2007, Republican Bobby Jindal was elected governor, winning 54 percent of the vote in a 12-candidate field. GOP electoral wins were buttressed by a Democratic registration decline. In 2002, Democrats made up nearly 58 percent of the state's electorate. By 2008, it had declined to a little over 52 percent.

Second, hurricane displacement. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina triggered the largest U.S. population migration since the Civil War. Several hundred thousand people were forced to leave their homes to find shelter. More than 90,000 voters moved away. Since most of them were African-American Democrats from New Orleans, this extraordinary diaspora became a big political factor.

Republican strategists calculated that Landrieu, who won her last election by 42,000 votes, would have a struggle holding on to her seat given these trends. What they couldn't calculate was the effect of the presidential race on voter turnout or how many displaced voters would re-register in other parts of the state.

And who would take on Mary Landrieu?

Republicans once hoped then-Rep. …

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