LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Democrat Mary Landrieu's quest for a fourth Senate term will turn on whether she can attract just enough support from independents and Republicans to win in this increasingly conservative state.
The daughter and sister of New Orleans mayors, that's been Landrieu's re-election strategy since 2002, when her donors included a Baton Rouge physician named Bill Cassidy, now her Republican challenger in this year's midterm elections.
Replicating that winning formula could depend on what matters more to voters: Landrieu's growing ability to help Louisiana's oil and gas industry through her recent promotion to chairwoman of the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee or her unapologetic vote for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
The answer means much to the balance of power in Washington in the final two years of Obama's presidency. Republicans need to gain only six seats to grab control of the Senate and, with the House likely to stay in GOP hands, Congress. Landrieu is one of four Senate Democrats seeking re-election in states Obama lost in 2012, so her political fortunes this year are among the nation's most closely watched.
In this race, allegiances don't fall neatly along party lines.
"I'm a die-hard Republican, but I love Mary Landrieu," said Lafayette resident Mark Miller, who owns and runs multiple Louisiana-based companies that drill and offer support services to other energy companies. "You can't overstate what it means for this state to have her experience and influence, especially with the energy chairmanship."
Among other things, Miller cites Landrieu's support for the Keystone Pipeline extension, her opposition to cap-and-trade legislation, her defense of offshore drilling after the Gulf oil spill and her support for the industry's tax advantages. Landrieu has also garnered support from shipbuilding magnate Donald "Boysie" Bollinger, noteworthy because Bollinger helped bankroll the GOP's takeover of the Louisiana Legislature.
But some of the senator's votes since Obama's inauguration — on health care and budget issues, in particular — are enough to drive erstwhile supporters to Cassidy, a congressman.
"Our civic responsibility has to shift this time to what's best for the nation," said Lafayette attorney Clay Allen, a Republican who said he backed Landrieu in 2008 based mostly on Louisiana's needs after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "In the intervening years," Allen explained, "I've just not seen her do the right thing on the debt, the deficit, health care — that's what voters here are most concerned about." He cast Landrieu as "hyper partisan," while Cassidy offers "more equanimity."
The GOP dynamic is more complicated than just being anti-Landrieu. There's an internal party struggle, as Cassidy faces skepticism about his conservative credentials due to his donations to Landrieu and other Democrats and, later, his push as a state senator for health-care exchanges that resemble some parts of the president's health care law.
And Louisiana's "jungle primary" — all candidates are on one November ballot — further complicates the Republican picture. Tea party challenger Rob Maness and at least one other candidate could block Cassidy from any hope of a first-round majority, meaning Landrieu either wins outright or advances to a December runoff against Cassidy.