Atchafalaya Basin, La.
Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu is flailing in the political current. The three-term Democratic senator is a Hubert Humphrey liberal masked as a John Breaux left-centrist, submerged in a national party that’s now left of George McGovern, in a state where political winds are blowing starboard.
And she’s anchored by weight of her own choosing. Landrieu didn’t have to ignore opinion polls and vote for Obamacare, but she did. She didn’t have to vote for radical Obama nominees like Debo Adegbile, pro bono legal advocate for cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, but she did. It was her own choice to vote against repealing the medical device tax and to vote increasingly pro-abortion in a pro-life state. She started her Senate career somewhat left of her Louisiana mentors Breaux and Bennett Johnston, and moved even further left. Breaux’s lifetime American Conservative Union rating was 45, Johnston’s 41; Landrieu’s is 20.
It’s no wonder Landrieu is all but written off for reelection. No candidate won a majority in Louisiana’s nonpartisan primary held Election Day, so the two top candidates face a runoff December 6. Polls show Republican Bill Cassidy, a doctor and three-term congressman, with a double-digit lead.
But Landrieu still fights—hard. Even on Election Day, addressing a media scrum after casting her own vote, she ripped into Cassidy: for his votes on disaster relief, for refusing to debate enough, for opposing “equal pay.” Despite a relentlessly negative campaign—which has drawn copious criticism from local and national press—the Landrieu effort maintains an energy that, in the Louisiana political tradition, has an appealingly entertaining vibe. That energy emanates from Landrieu herself, who for 35 years of public life has tried to outwork everybody around her. Now, stitching together a biracial conglomeration of mini-coalitions in every working-class small town, her campaign might be the nation’s last of its kind: old-style Southern populism, with a dusting of Cajun spice.
Two weeks before the runoff, Mary’s brother Mitch, mayor of New Orleans, traveled three hours west, across the Atchafalaya Basin’s miles of marshland, to the town of New Iberia. The mayor is his sister’s best advocate, casually engaging and remarkably persuasive.
“My sister is the oldest of 11 children,” he says, “all born within 11 years. That’s why she’s so bossy.” (The audience, 50 luncheon guests of the local Democratic party, laughs appreciatively.) “But she’s always shown a serious streak of independence. It allows her to serve with great distinction.” He continues with a tally. “Our coast is disappearing at 100 yards every 45 minutes, and Mary took up the fight. She made sure Louisiana got its fair share from offshore oil and gas,” he says. “Mary is 100 percent for Louisiana, all the time. . . . She got money for Barksdale Air Force Base. She got money for Fort Polk. She got money for Interstate 49. She went to battle for us again and again.”
He builds a compelling case for his sister with an infectiously upbeat demeanor. His defense of Obamacare is deeply personal but not maudlin: Nineteen years ago, doctors found a malignant, three-pound tumor in the stomach of the mayor’s daughter Emily, then 6. All the usual, horrendous treatments followed; Emily survived and is now a successful executive of some sort. Without Obamacare forcing coverage of preexisting conditions, her father says, she would probably be ineligible today for health insurance.
Cassidy provides the flip side to that argument the next day, back across the marsh and the Mississippi, in the town of Gonzales, a half-hour south of Baton Rouge and best known for its Jambalaya Festival. Cassidy is focused, disciplined, clinical—about as far from Louisiana’s populist tradition as can be imagined. Asked before the rally for some favorite anecdotes from the campaign trail, he comes up with nothing folksy. Instead, he says, “I’ve been struck that Obamacare has been the principal issue. In Jefferson Parish, a 54-year-old woman who had had a hysterectomy, had no children, is being forced to pay $1,500 per month for a plan covering things she doesn’t want. She asks me why she would ever need obstetric care or pediatric dentistry. Then there was a guy in Hammond, mid-50s, boys 18 or 19 years old. Two years ago his family paid $12,000 a year for insurance; last year it rose to $21,000, and this year they’re told it will be another
20 percent increase.” He concludes: “If people are not getting a subsidy, they are getting pounded.”