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Next up: U.S. Senate race

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Now that the mayor's race is over, it's time to focus on The Next Big Political Thing: U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's bid for re-election in November. Actually, Landrieu and her Republican foes have been focused on that for a while.

  The billionaire Koch Brothers and their Super PAC already have spent millions on TV ads across Louisiana attacking Landrieu for her support of the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare"), and it has taken a toll. For the first time, Landrieu trailed her main GOP opponent, Congressman Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge, in a recent independent poll. That poll, by Rasmussen Reports, had Cassidy leading 44 percent to 40 percent, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.5 percent. The poll sampled 500 "likely Louisiana voters" Jan. 28-29.

  While Cassidy's lead is within the margin of error, there's no discounting the psychological effect of those numbers: The incumbent trails. Cassidy will get a "bounce" — and not just at Landrieu's expense. The poll is equally bad news for Cassidy's GOP rivals, who have cast him as weak, not conservative enough and most damaging of all — unable to beat Landrieu. It will be tough to make that last one stick now.

  State Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Mandeville, has mounted an aggressive TV campaign and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness of Madisonville continues to hit Cassidy and Landrieu via his mostly digital media campaign.

  Don't look for Hollis or Maness to let up. They represent vocal factions of the hard-right wing of the GOP, which are as intolerant of "moderate" or "mainstream" Republicans as they are of Democrats. While Cassidy remains Landrieu's main GOP foe, he will have to fend off attacks from the right as well as the left between now and the Nov. 4 open primary. That could play into Landrieu's hands during the primary, but if the contest goes to a Dec. 6 general election, the GOP no doubt will circle the wagons. As often happens, it will be all about turnout.

  For her part, Landrieu has hit the campaign trail across Louisiana and is expected to get on TV soon to answer the Koch Brothers' attacks. She may also go on the offensive against Cassidy, who wrote her a $500 campaign check in June 2002, when he was a member of the Louisiana Legislature and she was running for re-election. Attacking early and often worked well for Landrieu in 2008 against state Treasurer John Kennedy, but this time she will have to keep up with the Koch Brothers, not just Cassidy.

  Landrieu also will have to explain her vote for Obamacare, which is unpopular in many parts of the state. The program's error-riddled rollout last October only made things worse, although enrollment has increased since then. What will matter going forward is whether the act reduces health insurance rates for average families. It already has benefits that many people like — such as guaranteeing coverage for children to age 26 and for folks with pre-existing conditions.

  Landrieu's ace in the hole could be her imminent chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. She is expected to assume that post in the next week or two, which means she'll soon be writing America's energy policy. She already is a darling of the energy industry, and some big names in Louisiana's Oil Patch (including some big GOP names) are lining up behind her because of that. For them, business trumps politics.

  Events will shape this campaign as much as strategy. Landrieu scored a victory last week when the Senate passed the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, which she took the lead in promoting. In the House, Cassidy's fellow Republicans are lined up against it. If folks think their health insurance rates are steep, wait till they get a load of their new flood insurance rates.

  Landrieu can claim success in getting relief in the Senate. Cassidy has to deliver the House, which will not be easy, or admit that he couldn't get it done.

  This race is just getting started. It's going to be a wild roller coaster ride for everyone involved, and it's a long way to November.

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