If this year's U.S. Senate race in Louisiana seems particularly antagonistic, there's a reason beyond the obvious: If incumbent Mary Landrieu loses to either of her Republican challengers — U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy or political newcomer Rob Maness — it may be enough to tilt the Senate from blue to red. The Senate currently has 53 Democrats and 45 Republicans. (Maine's Angus King and Vermont's Bernie Sanders are both independents but caucus with the Democrats.) This year, 20 Democratic incumbents are up for re-election compared to only 13 Republican senators, and a significant number of Democrats are considered vulnerable — none more so than Landrieu.
All of Landrieu's races have been tough, but this — her fourth Senate campaign — may be her toughest. Cassidy, a physician and the mainstream Republican in the race, has been hammering her over her support of the Affordable Care Act (and President Barack Obama in general). Maness, who enjoys the backing of the GOP's tea party wing, has been bashing Landrieu and Cassidy for being part of the Beltway crowd too long. He promises to "drain the swamp" in Washington.
Lately the candidates have focused more on posturing than policy, starting with a brouhaha over Landrieu's status as a Louisiana resident. This is nothing new. In 2008, as she was running for her third term, cellphone photos of Landrieu shopping at a Capitol Hill supermarket were proffered as evidence she lived in D.C. and not Louisiana — as if any member of Congress couldn't be found at one time or another shopping in the nation's capitol. Newsflash: U.S. senators and congressmen work in Washington. They have to live there most of the year.
That didn't stop state Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington (who dropped out of the race earlier this year), from filing a lawsuit last month claiming that Landrieu doesn't live in Louisiana and is therefore ineligible to run. Landrieu lists her childhood home in New Orleans' Broadmoor neighborhood as her official residence. The house in fact is owned by a partnership of Landrieu, her mother and her siblings, all of whom own equal shares. Landrieu says she stays there on her trips back home.
In The Washington Post article that "broke" the story, Cassidy was quoted as saying, "She doesn't live in New Orleans." The article noted that Cassidy himself has homes in Baton Rouge and Washington, and Maness asked the district attorneys of four parishes to investigate.
It's a lame argument on several levels, not the least of which is the federal constitutional requirement that a senator merely live in his or her home state on Election Day, which this year is Nov. 4. Baton Rouge state Judge Wilson Fields threw out Hollis' lawsuit earlier this month, pointing out the Election Day stipulation. (Landrieu spokesman Fabien Levy later issued a statement saying, "The judge was clear — Sen. Landrieu resides in Louisiana and is qualified to run for the Senate," which is not at all what Fields ruled.) While hyperbole abounds in politics, the lawsuit underscored both Cassidy and Maness' claim that Landrieu is a Washington "insider" who is out of touch with the people of Louisiana.
The notion that someone has become too comfortable in Washington has great appeal these days, but there's a downside to tossing out long-term incumbents. Washington runs on seniority, which means that freshmen congressmen and senators wield the least amount of influence — and can deliver the least for their constituents. No amount of campaign rhetoric will change that. Consider this scenario: If Landrieu is defeated and U.S. Sen. David Vitter wins the governor's race next year (he's already running), Louisiana will have two rookie senators on Capitol Hill in 2016.
While Maness talks about "draining the swamp," the fact that Landrieu has been in the Senate since 1997 and Vitter since 2005 — coupled with U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise's recent election as House Majority Whip — means Louisiana has finally recaptured some of the considerable clout it once had on Capitol Hill. Landrieu chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and Vitter is the GOP's ranking member on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Both are critical positions for Louisiana.
Landrieu likely will never be loved by the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and Vitter will never be loved by many of his fellow Republicans. But if they both "return home" in 2015, it's a sure bet that Louisiana will miss their clout if we are hit by another major hurricane, levee failure or coastal oil disaster.