For Mary Landrieu, it was always going to come down to a classic Louisiana nail-biter. Deep down, she and her inner circle always knew her first bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate would be very, very tough and very, very close.
Tuesday's primary seems destined to fulfill that expectation.
Landrieu has always been the favorite, particularly in light of the Louisiana GOP's penchant for shooting itself in the foot. Not even her opponents doubt that she will lead the field by a significant margin on Tuesday. The question is, can she get enough votes to win outright? If she doesn't, she will have to face one of her Republican challengers in a pitched Dec. 7 runoff.
Every poll, including those taken for her opponents, shows Landrieu with a big lead -- but lately none shows her getting 50 percent of the raw vote. Then again, candidates who get 50 percent of the raw vote in polls usually get 60 percent or more on Election Day. That's because polls' raw numbers include responses from "undecided" voters who usually don't go to the polls.
If only the "decided" vote is counted, then every poll shows Landrieu with a majority of the votes.
Of course, polls are not crystal balls. They are merely snapshots in time. Elections are fluid processes. Things constantly change, and there is no sure way to predict who will vote. And when elections are this close, the question of "who votes" is what determines the outcome of the contest.
Louisiana is unique in many ways, particularly in our election laws. Whereas other states have separate party primaries for Republicans and Democrats to choose one standard-bearer each, Louisiana has an "open" elections system in which all candidates (regardless of party) run against each other. If no one gets a majority in the primary, the top two finishers face each other in a runoff. Sometimes the runoff features two candidates from the same party, although statewide contests usually pit a Republican against a Democrat.
Other states will have general elections for Congress and Senate on Tuesday. Louisiana will have its primaries. If any runoffs are needed, Louisiana will have the only federal elections in the country on Dec. 7.
That means our runoffs, if there are any, will be national elections.
That is particularly true in the Landrieu race, because control of the U.S. Senate could be determined by the outcome of that election. That's why the National Republican Party has been pouring dough into TV ads that attack Landrieu. Those same ads sing the praises of Republican Suzie Terrell, who appears to be the leading GOP challenger in the late stages. Not far behind Terrell is Monroe Congressman John Cooksey, also a Republican. Trailing them both by a wider margin is Republican state Rep. Tony Perkins of Baton Rouge, the darling of the Christian right.
Even among the GOP challengers, polls cannot predict the actual outcome. Perkins polls a distant fourth, but his followers tend to be among the most committed voters in the state. Another factor that will affect turnout is the race to succeed Cooksey, who opted not to seek re-election to Congress in order to oppose Landrieu. While all seven Louisiana congressional districts are having elections on Tuesday, only Cooksey's is an open seat -- and therefore hotly contested. That means we'll see a larger turnout in northeast Louisiana than in many other areas, and that will benefit Cooksey. There's also a red-hot Public Service Commission race in northwest Louisiana, which also could benefit Cooksey.
In New Orleans, of course, there's a bare-knuckle race for district attorney, which is likely to turn out lots of Landrieu voters.
In effect, the U.S. Senate election in Louisiana has been several contests in one. The national GOP has pulled out all the stops to try to take out Landrieu, but Landrieu's GOP challengers have been working just as hard to get ahead of each other.