Hard to believe, but it was less than two months ago when our dysfunctional Congress failed to enact federal budget funding and thereby shut down most of the United States government, sending citizen approval of the Senate and the House to below-the-basement levels. At the time, most of the blame landed at the feet of Republicans. Pundits questioned what effect the public scorn and outrage would have on the GOP's 2014 election chances.
Then President Barack Obama and his advisors gave Republicans an early Christmas gift: Healthcare.gov, the Affordable Care Act website that was plagued with glitches from the start. The shutdown virtually vanished from the news cycle, and Democrats took the hit for the website's disastrous rollout. And the hits just keep on coming.
Among those Democrats is Louisiana's U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who has stood by the president and been a defender of Obamacare in a state where it is particularly unpopular. According to a recent poll from Southern Media and Opinion Research (SMOR), Landrieu's stance is costing her some support back home. Last spring, 56 percent of SMOR respondents approved of Landrieu's performance in the Senate; this month, she's down to 46 percent approval. When the president flew to New Orleans last month to speak at the Port of New Orleans, Landrieu was on the plane with him but didn't appear beside him in public (her staff pointed to a long-scheduled engagement in Lake Charles).
Landrieu is up for re-election next year, and Republicans (as usual) see her as particularly vulnerable — not just for the Obamacare website debacle, but because thousands of Louisianans found their health insurance coverage canceled when their plans didn't measure up to the standard established by the Affordable Care Act. Landrieu responded by putting together a bill that would grandfather in the existing policies, and she quickly got significant Democratic support for doing so. Meanwhile, her earliest announced Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, has slammed her for seeking a "big government" fix to what he says could best be handled by the free market. Given the dysfunction of the health care system and the skyrocketing cost of health insurance without the Affordable Care Act, and given the fact that Cassidy offered a state plan similar to Obamacare when he was in the Louisiana Senate, we question his bona fides on this one.
Ironically, one of Landrieu's best weapons may be the other Republican in the race — retired U.S. Air Force Col. Rob Maness of Mandeville. Maness bills himself as "the conservative candidate" and enjoys support from various tea party-affiliated groups. He yoked together Landrieu and Cassidy as Washington insiders, mostly to Landrieu's advantage. In the SMOR poll, Landrieu garnered 44 percent, while Cassidy drew 34 percent and Maness 10 percent (the rest were undecided).
One of Maness' endorsements surely vexes Cassidy and the mainstream GOP: that of the political action committee Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), which has targeted sitting Republicans who are viewed as insufficiently conservative. The SCF — which has listed unseating Landrieu on its "Priority List" for 2014 — has supported some successful firebrand GOP candidates, including Florida's U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Utah's U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, Kentucky's U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Texas' U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
Landrieu may be vulnerable, as she has appeared to be in past elections, but she's a formidable candidate with extensive experience (in January, she will have served 17 years in the Senate) facing GOP challengers.
As a state senator, Cassidy introduced legislation that would set up a system of state health exchanges not unlike those under Obamacare — a particularly significant recommendation, given that he's a physician. Today he's a leading House voice against Obamacare, which some call a flip-flop.
Financially, Maness has managed to scrape together only about $100,000 in contributions, while Landrieu and Cassidy have each raised millions. The Cassidy camp seemed to overplay its hand last month when a conservative website produced an image of Landrieu's head on the body of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini — an image Cassidy's campaign manager proudly tweeted. Landrieu demanded an apology (she didn't get it) and even Maness called for Cassidy to apologize for "comparing a political maneuver to the atrocities of fascism."
For now, Landrieu's best ally in the race may be time. Despite a spate of commercials slamming her, the election still is 11 months away. If the fallout from October's government shutdown can be overshadowed so quickly and thoroughly by the problems with Obamacare's web launch, a lot more can happen between now and next November.