A few nights ago, internal Landrieu polls showed the incumbent Senator 5 % points behind her Republican challenger Suzanne Haik Terrell. Popular Republican President George W. Bush had just left Louisiana raising a bundle of money for Terrell and instilling the GOP grassroots with much needed enthusiasm. At that point, the Landrieu camp knew they needed to fight back and the issue they used turned out to be quite powerful—SUGAR.
In many areas of Louisiana , the citizens live in rural and poor conditions, with an economy still heavily dependent on the agriculture industry. One such area is called Acadiana, in the southwestern part of the state, the swing section in almost all elections. Northern Louisiana is more conservative, the New Orleans area is more liberal and Acadiana swings back and forth depending on the election. Sugar cane farming is huge in the southwest section of Louisiana and Landrieu raised the ugly specter of a “secret deal” between United States and Mexico to dump over 1 billion pounds of Mexican sugar into our country, thereby devastating our 27,000 sugar cane farmers. Even though the White House denied any such deal had been made, Landrieu cited a report in a Mexican newspaper and hammered Terrell on the issue. The White House and Terrell campaign denials were ineffective and the surge placed the incumbent in office for another six years.
Now the national and state Republican Party must deal with a golden opportunity that slipped away. Here are a few more reasons why it happened:
Ø This is not Georgia. The RNC and operatives like Ralph Reed descended on Louisiana and tried to replay the recent Georgia U.S. Senate election, in which Saxby Chambliss defeated incumbent Max Cleland. The decision was a strategic error since Louisiana is different from Georgia , poorer and more dependent on the government for assistance. Also, with the current demographics of Louisiana , having a high concentration of poor white voters and African-American voters, the state leans much more heavily to the Democratic Party.
Ø Louisiana Loves Local Personalities Best. Landrieu ended her campaign with a victory rally at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium with local leaders from around the state. She had an impressive line-up of elected officials, led by the New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Republican Jefferson Parish President Tim Coulon. In contrast, Terrell surrounded herself with all of the national Republican leadership such as President George W. Bush, Former President Bush, Vice President Cheney, White House Adviser Karen Hughes, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Congressman J.C. Watts. Landrieu had all of the unpopular national Democratic leaders like Al Gore and Tom Daschle stay away. She also asked controversial former President Bill Clinton to stay away, even though her campaign used him in recorded phone calls to African-American households. Landrieu stressed that she placed Louisiana first and voters bought that message, assisted by her reliance on local campaign partners.
Ø RNC Fails Again. The last time the RNC tried to come into Louisiana and win an election was in 1986 when they took over the Henson Moore U.S. Senate campaign. Moore was a solid bet to beat then Congressman John Breaux, but an effort to purge the voter rolls backfired, energizing the African-American Democratic base and Breaux won handily. This time, the large influx of Republican leaders surely energized not only the Republican faithful, but also the African-American base for Landrieu
Ø African-Americans Backed Landrieu Strongly. She put the coalition together to win in this crucial area, the foundation of her re-election bid. Key for Landrieu was winning over a reluctant State Senator Cleo Fields to help her in the Baton Rouge area. In addition, Rev. Jesse Jackson visited the state and former Mayor of New Orleans Marc Morial took an active roll in the New Orleans area. Turnout was strong in New Orleans at 44%, whereas statewide turnout was only 43%. At least from this view, there did not seem to be much of a differential between white and black voter turnout, one of the keys for Landrieu to win.
Ø Foster Follies. Governor Mike Foster was a non-entity in the Terrell campaign. He only half-heartedly endorsed her and was not seen on commercials or many Terrell events. He was critical of her “negative” campaign in the primary election and the attacks on Landrieu’s home in Washington D.C. He also spoke favorably of the Democratic challenger, State Representative Rodney Alexander, who ran in John Cooksey’s old Congressional district, probably helping Alexander squeak out a victory. Foster has done nothing but harm the Republican Party politically, but his economic policies have harmed them even more. With Foster’s lame stewardship of the state’s economy, tens of thousands of Louisiana residents have had to leave the state in search of jobs and opportunities. Those leaving are primarily Republicans—college graduates, business owners, executives, leaving the state with more poor residents who cannot afford to leave and who historically vote Democratic. In 1996, Mary Landrieu defeated super conservative State Representative Woody Jenkins by only 5,718 votes. Six years later, she defeated more moderate Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell by almost 40,000 votes. Many Republican analysts believed the party could defeat Landrieu with a more mainstream candidate, but they forget to factor in how much the voting demographics of Louisiana have changed in the past six years.
Ø Lack of Republican Unity. Terrell had to contend with a less than united Republican Party. In addition to Republican Governor Foster’s weak endorsement, Terrell’s primary challengers, State Representative Tony Perkins and Congressman John Cooksey, only timidly endorsed her and were not seen on the campaign trail on her behalf. In the Congressional race, Republican candidate Lee Fletcher was hurt by the lack of support from his vanquished Republican contenders, former Congressman Clyde Holloway and State Senator Robert Barham. Finally, Republican Jefferson Parish President Tim Coulon was featured prominently in Landrieu commercials, thereby helping the incumbent carry 45% of the vote in Jefferson Parish, a pretty conservative parish.
This race shows that for Republicans to ever win more statewide offices, they will have to be able to crack into the African-American vote which is now 30% of the electorate of Louisiana . That base just gives a moderate white candidate too much of a head start for any Republican to win. The last four Republicans elected to statewide office—Dave Treen-Governor, Fox McKeithen-Secretary of State, Mike Foster-Governor and Suzanne Terrell-Elections Commissioner, all beat rather extreme candidates in the run-off. Republicans tried to make the charge that Landrieu was a super-liberal, but with a 74% pro-President Bush voting record, the voters didn’t believe the accusation. Even worse for Republicans, a moderate white candidate that is pro-life, like John Breaux is untouchable. When he is up for re-election in two years, he will be a strong favorite and probably will not be seriously challenged by a state Republican Party in disarray.
Now, the future looks bright for the Landrieu family. As Mary Landrieu returns to Washington , her name will certainly be on the Vice Presidential lists for many of the leading White House contenders. If not, she seems secure in her Senate seat for many terms into the future, having survived the Republicans best shot to defeat her. Her brother, State Representative Mitch Landrieu, will also look at higher office, most probably Attorney General next fall. Now, Louisiana Republicans face the difficult chore next year of replacing a Republican Governor. Their best shot is to hope a Republican lands in a run-off against a liberal African-American candidate, which is what happened to Mike Foster in 1995. If that doesn’t happen, look for a moderate white Democrat to be the next Governor of Louisiana, certainly a tough prospect for a Republican Party that was riding so high only a few days ago to accept, but that is the reality of politics in today’s Louisiana .