Thursday, May 29, 2008

Louisiana Senate: A Tossup All the Way Until Election Day

By Stuart Rothenberg

In some House and Senate contests, the incumbent can “put away” the challenger with an early negative media blitz that discredits him before he has been able to get himself known. At other times, the incumbent can safely ignore the challenger rather than giving him the credibility he will never get. You can never be sure.

In more than a few instances, you need look only at fundraising numbers to figure out who will win and who’ll come up short. And in many cases — too many cases — you can ignore the candidates, fundraising numbers and even the campaign. A state’s or district’s partisanship or demographics is all you need to look at to predict who will win in November.

The Louisiana Senate race isn’t likely to be any of those contests or scenarios just cited. Instead, the contest between Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) and her challenger, state Treasurer John Kennedy (R), is likely to be decided by a point or two — too close for anyone to be able to pick a winner at this point, or, possibly, even on election eve.

Landrieu has run for the Senate twice and had two uncomfortably close contests. In 1996, she narrowly beat Republican Woody Jenkins by fewer than 6,000 votes out of 1.7 million votes in the runoff. Yes, that’s the same Woody Jenkins who couldn’t even win a Congressional special election earlier this month in a Republican-leaning district.

Six years later, Landrieu beat Republican state Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell by a larger margin, 52 percent to 48 percent. Terrell, like Jenkins, wasn’t initially regarded as an ideal Republican Senate nominee, and Landrieu used her considerable fundraising advantage ($7.4 million for Landrieu and $2.8 million for Terrell) to her benefit.

This year, Landrieu is facing Kennedy, who was just elected to his third term after serving the first two as a Democrat.

Kennedy, 56, holds law degrees from the University of Virginia and Oxford. He served as legal counsel to Gov. Buddy Roemer (when the governor was first elected, as a Democrat), and managed Roemer’s unsuccessful gubernatorial effort in 1995 (when Roemer was running as a Republican).

In between those two contests, Kennedy himself ran for office, finishing third in a 1991 race for state attorney general. Roemer, who was seeking re-election that year, finished third in the gubernatorial contest as well.

Although Kennedy managed Roemer’s unsuccessful race in 1995, the winner of that contest, Republican Gov. Mike Foster, picked Kennedy to be his secretary of revenue.

In 1999, Kennedy ran for state treasurer, knocking off the sitting incumbent, Democrat Ken Duncan. Kennedy was re-elected without opposition in 2003 and 2007. In 2004, he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, finishing well behind fellow Democrat Chris John and the winner, Republican David Vitter.

Democrats (and even a Republican or two) argue that Landrieu is well-positioned to win re-election, noting that she has been extremely visible since Hurricane Katrina ripped through her state, and that she has received high marks for her effort. Some also denigrate Kennedy as a mediocre campaigner who has lost more than his share of earlier contests for office.

Surprisingly, Kennedy says he’s unconcerned about Landrieu’s incumbency advantages or her inevitable argument that she can help the state as part of the Democratic majority. He will run the way many Democrats are running — as a vehicle for change.

“I’m not real impressed with what Washington has done for Louisiana or for the American people,” he said recently during an interview. “The system isn’t working,” he added.

Both parties agree that the state has lost Democratic voters since Katrina, but Democrats say the impact on a statewide election is very minor. Republicans counter that any way you look at it, the state is trending Republican, and they cite last year’s victory by Bobby Jindal (R) in the gubernatorial election, without a runoff, as evidence.

Landrieu starts with a considerable financial advantage. She had more than $4.5 million in the bank at the end of March. But Kennedy came out of the box quickly, showing $1.6 million on hand on March 31 and taking in another $500,000 or so from a fundraiser with President Bush late last month. As the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s lone takeover prospect, Kennedy should have the resources he needs to be competitive against Landrieu.

Exactly where the race begins is anybody’s guess, in part because surveys conducted in the state by Louisiana polling firms are suspect.

A December survey conducted by SurveyUSA for Roll Call showed Landrieu leading Kennedy by a mere 4 points, 46 percent to 42 percent, while a March/April Southern Media/Opinion Research poll conducted inexplicably over two weeks showed the Senator up by a dozen points, 50 percent to 38 percent.

Together, the two surveys probably set a reasonable range of where the race really is. And both of them undoubtedly are closer to the truth than a ridiculous Zogby poll for Kennedy in October that showed the Republican leading Landrieu by 7 points.

My guess is that the combination of two quality candidates, the presidential race, the rare opportunity for a Republican takeover, the general drift of the state’s electorate toward the GOP and an incumbent with plenty of resources and political savvy guarantee a race so close that it’s unwise not to get caught up in the ebb and flow of the contest. Keep your eye on this race all the way until November.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 27, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.