Sweet Victory

As the 2004 presidential election approaches, historian Douglas Brinkley analyzes what Democrats can learn from Mary Landrieu's Senate victory.



"I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down."
-- Bob Dylan

When recalling election night 2002, Sen. Mary Landrieu referred to a singular state-of-being: shock. Channel-surfing between CNN, ABC and NBC, the incumbent Landrieu learned that she had failed to win an outright majority in her state's antiquated "open primary" election. She had been one of nine candidates from all parties on the Nov. 5 ballot. And even though Landrieu had won 46 percent of the vote, she had failed to hit the 50 percent mark. Therefore, according to Louisiana law, she was forced to enter the Dec. 7 runoff against the top Republican candidate, Suzanne Haik Terrell, who had netted only 27 percent of the vote.

The evening grew even darker for Landrieu as the dismal election returns came trickling in from Missouri, Minnesota and Georgia -- all states she had assumed would re-elect the Democratic senatorial candidate. Television commentators dubbed the election "Black Tuesday" for Democrats -- friends of Landrieu were losing everywhere. The GOP was making a clean sweep.

"I had been so focused on my race that I didn't follow the dynamics of others too closely," Landrieu recalls. "But when I got the news that both Max Cleland and Roy Barnes lost in Georgia, my knees buckled. They were moderate Southern Democrats like myself. For a flashing second, I thought that maybe I too was doomed. But I quickly pulled myself together. My disappointment turned to rage as I learned how conservative Republicans had tarnished the reputation of a great Vietnam War patriot like Max Cleland. My insides turned steely. This anger helped me prepare for December 7. I was going to win."

And win Landrieu did -- quite decisively. She garnered 52 percent of the vote compared to Terrell's 48 percent. Her re-election punctured the conservative myth that the Democratic Party should concede the South forever to the Republicans. Despite Herculean efforts by the Bush administration and other conservatives, the Democrats in Louisiana held onto a Senate seat and also gained a GOP-held Congressional seat.

Nobody would argue that post-1968 life is easy for Democrats in the South. But a Democrat with the right moderate message and independent personality can win. It's worth remembering that since 1994 the Democrats have won either a U.S. Senate seat or governorship in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee -- every Southern state except Texas.

"Tonight a great light has gone on in the United States because we turned the lights on," Landrieu said at her Fairmont Hotel victory party in New Orleans. "The light has shown that the Democratic Party is alive and well and united."

As the Democratic Party prepares for the 2004 election, it's worth contemplating what the Landrieu campaign did right following Black Tuesday. It must be stated from the outset that Landrieu ran against a weak candidate. Suzanne Haik Terrell's big campaign boast was that she was close to President George W. Bush, bragging that she voted with the president 90 percent of the time. She ran on the notion that Louisiana already had one Democratic senator -- John Breaux -- and now the state needed a loyal Republican in Washington, D.C., to get things done. The highlight of her campaign occurred when President Bush campaigned for her in Shreveport and New Orleans, raising more than $1 million for her campaign. Since Bush carried the state in 2000 and had an approximately 65 percent favorable rating in Louisiana polls, Terrell wrapped herself around the White House like a patriotic banner on the Fourth of July. In addition to Bush, a parade of other Republicans came to Louisiana to stump for Terrell, including former President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then-impending Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

With great fortitude and grit, Landrieu challenged this Terrell-Bush-national GOP coalition head-on. Starting on Nov. 6, Landrieu began preparing for battle against Terrell. She made a few key independent decisions that served her well. First, she was determined to not let the opposition smear her reputation. She directly challenged every insult and innuendo hurled her way. "More firepower," she kept telling herself. "A strong offense and a strong defense. This was war." With the help of three U.S. senators -- Breaux, Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) -- she quickly raised some money from the Democratic caucus. But then she made the decision that saved her senatorial seat -- she asked so-called "National Democrats," with the important exception of the Black Caucus, to stay out of Louisiana. She didn't want to be seen jogging with Bill Clinton or visiting the wetlands with Al Gore or praying at a synagogue with Joe Lieberman.

"I didn't need to bring big names into the state to win," she recalls. "I needed to prove that I was an independent voice." While Terrell was promising that she was essentially a rubber stamp for President Bush, Landrieu kept telling voters she was her own woman, a true independent who always put "Louisiana First."

Over the years, Landrieu had become fed up with the so-called Beltway Syndrome. She was appalled at how the gregarious Terry McAuliffe-types kept selling a National Democratic Message for all 50 states. Somehow the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had lost sight of the first rule of electoral warfare: all politics is local. What played well in Kansas or California or Maine did not necessarily play well in Louisiana. Her party's top consultants, however, were trying to sanitize her message. "I balked from the DNC message machine," Landrieu says. "Their approach might work for presidential candidates but in Louisiana you need an independent, issue-by-issue approach."

Determined to do things her own way, Landrieu's next decision was to quickly solidify her base. "I didn't run away from gay-lesbians or Christian organizations," she says. "I embraced them and started coalition building." She had to re-invigorate her Democratic base. To do so Landrieu had to distance herself from President Bush, even though she had previously noted that she had voted with him 74 percent of the time. She made it clear that when it came to economic matters, civil rights issues and environmental standards she would oppose the president head-on. She clearly understood that in order to win the run-off election a large African-American turnout was necessary.

"Voters may like George Bush and support quite a few of his policies, but the reality is they don't want someone who's going to follow any party's doctrine," Sen. John Breaux explained about the Landrieu victory strategy. "The tide at least has been stopped, this idea that the president can just go anywhere and work magic."

By becoming a Bush-bashing old-style Democrat, Landrieu invigorated her campaign. Many yellow-dog Democrats who stayed home on Nov. 5 were now proud to pull a lever for Landrieu on Dec. 7. A shrewd Landrieu agreed with what Harold Meyerson wrote in The American Prospect, that the Democrats had no message to sell on Nov. 5. "They were an opposition party that drew no lines of opposition," he wrote. "They had nothing to say. And on Tuesday, their base responded by staying home in droves." Or as fellow Louisianian James Carville put it: "We've got to stand for something. No one made the case." To her credit, Landrieu had learned the fundamental lesson of the mid-term election: that Democrats were not going to get elected by not criticizing George W. Bush.

Since she agreed with much of Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy, Landrieu desperately needed a kinetic statewide issue -- besides defending social security -- that would differentiate her from the Terrell-Bush platform. That's when the sugar issue fell from the sky and landed on her lap via a Nov. 20 report in the Mexican newspaper Reforma that claimed a secret trade deal had been struck between George Bush and Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico. The heart of the issue was whether Mexico should be allowed to ship 300,000 metric tons of displaced sugar into the United States in 2003. News of this "secret Mexican sugar deal" angered Louisiana farmers who already were imbued with an anti-NAFTA bent.

"The deal, if it exists, could dramatically shrink or even destroy the Louisiana sugar industry," declared Brian Breaux, sugar specialist for the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation. "At this time, representatives of the American Sugar Cane League are actively urging the U.S. Trade Representative to Mexico to quash any deal which could devastate the U.S. sugar industry."

With great zeal Landrieu seized upon this obscure Mexican newspaper story, making it the centerpiece of her reelection campaign. She rightfully claimed that the secret deal to import Mexican sugar would hinder the livelihood of 27,000 Louisiana sugar cane farmers. Due to bad weather Louisiana's sugar growers were already having a hard time. The White House plan to double Mexican sugar imports was just another cruel and callous blow. Even Republican Gov. Mike Foster admitted that such a deal would destroy his party in Louisiana for a generation. In the critical Acadian area of the state, where sugar is king, Terrell had been polling quite well. Landrieu and her troops, many waving 10-foot stalks of sugar cane as if they were pitchforks, went on a brutal offensive. At rally after rally in Cajun country, Landrieu claimed that she put Louisiana first, while Terrell was the trained poodle of President Bush, a rubber stamp who disdained working-class people.

"The sugar issue crystallized what I was saying," Landrieu explains. "Sometimes a president's policies are wrong for a state. That's just the way it is. ... It was powerful out there."

If the Democratic party hopes to regain either the U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives, its candidates must learn the Landrieu lessons: don't be afraid to criticize the Bush administration; solidify your base; immediately respond to ad holmium attacks by an opponent; deviate, when necessary, from the DNC line (i.e. refuse to march in lockstep with Terry McAuliffe); don't be afraid to cut taxes (Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson did so and watched his popularity soar); ignore Beltway lobbyists; and find a heated local issue to embrace as your own. And, at all times, be forceful. The wimp factor usually spells doom for the Democratic candidate.

"When people feel insecure," Bill Clinton correctly advised fellow Democrats after Black Tuesday, they'd prefer "somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right." Recapping the Dec. 7 runoff election in Louisiana, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne perfectly summed up why Landrieu defeated Terrell: toughness. "When President Bush threw everything except poisoned gumbo into the fight to defeat Landrieu in Saturday's runoff, she didn't fold," he wrote. "She hit Bush where it hurts on the economics, and threw sugar in his eyes. She told the voters in a very pro-Bush state that they had a choice between a Bush rubber-stamp or an independent voice. Independence beat Bush."

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