Washington — Republicans cackled for days over the entanglement of one of their main Democratic targets in the fall elections, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, in a controversy over charter airplane flights. But in terms of chartergate’s ultimate effect on the outcome of the vote, it may be a case of too little, too early.
The disclosures that Landrieu improperly paid thousands for campaign-related charter flights by tapping her official Senate office account definitely put her on the defensive, even as she runs hard to blunt the challenge from her best-financed Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge.
Repeated rounds of media reports led her to announce she was ordering a review of every flight paid for with official funds in her 18 years in the Senate, promising to release the results by Sept. 8, but still the hits kept coming. And when she showed up at the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office on Wednesday to formally file her candidacy for re-election, she was greeted by Republican political theater, featuring a troupe costumed in flight attendant and pilot outfits.
“If you’re on the Republican side, you are trying very hard to make a mountain of this,” University of Louisiana at Lafayette political science professor Pearson Cross said. “But in the big scheme of things, and in terms of why people are going to pull the lever one way or another, I think it’s pretty small potatoes.”
There is some danger in chartergate for Landrieu, Cross said: “You’re never quite sure when that gut, visceral image is going to be stamped, so that someone is going to be characterized by one of their indiscretions, one of their foibles.”
In 2012, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s embarrassing failure to remember the third of his three big points in a televised debate helped define him as a lightweight and seriously damaged his quest for the Republican presidential nomination.
Such a fate probably won’t afflict Landrieu in this case, Tulane University political scientist Brian Brox said.
“The reaction to this will be fairly predictable,” he said. “The people that are already disinclined to vote for her are going to scream, and the people who are supporters of her are going to say it’s an honest mistake.
“As far as the people who are undecided, my suspicion is that this has happened too early,” Brox said.
But if more wrongful payments are uncovered, the picture could change, said Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
“For something like this to have a significant impact, we need something more substantial,” Stockley said. “We need a consistent pattern.”
It’s still more than two months until Nov. 4, when Louisiana voters cast their first — but quite likely not their last — ballots in the Senate race, which Republicans see as a major opportunity to pick up one of the six seats they need for a Senate majority.
Landrieu, Cassidy and all other candidates will compete in the same field Nov. 4. If no one wins a majority that day, the top two finishers meet Dec. 6. The presence of a third candidate running a seven-figure campaign — retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, of Madisonville, a tea party Republican — increases the likelihood of a runoff.
Landrieu has been hustling to keep her job, attending news conferences, conducting port tours and speaking at business luncheons across the state, while touting her role in securing everything from a $225 million federal contract to build Coast Guard cutters in Lockport to a $24,000 grant to the Ruston Fire Department.
The Cassidy campaign comes across as more buttoned-down, less hyper. That may be because his team thinks the deck is stacked against Landrieu, who is the only remaining Democratic senator from a Deep South state and the only Democrat still holding statewide office in Louisiana. It may be because they are counting on a bigger infusion of the outside spending by conservative groups who are already trashing Landrieu in TV commercials. It may be they are holding their fire for a head-to-head matchup in a runoff, which they see as favoring their candidate.
Or it may just be that Cassidy isn’t cut from the same cloth as Landrieu.
“Cassidy is a different individual,” Stockley said. “He’s always been a little more reserved. He’s not the most charismatic individual. He’s low-key by personality, and his campaign in many ways is a reflection of who he is.”
Tasked with knocking off an incumbent with near-universal name recognition, that style will not suit Cassidy well, Cross said.
“He needs an aggressive campaign to upset a three-term United States senator,” Cross said. “To beat somebody, you’ve got to come with something. If he doesn’t create an identity that resonates with 50 percent or more of Louisiana voters, it’s not going to happen. He can’t just let the tide do it for him.”
But the same electoral schedule that mitigates the effect of chartergate also means there’s plenty of time to change gears.
“They’ve been largely polite, but I fully expect all three candidates to develop much sharper and more negative rhetoric,” Stockley said. “I think the intensity will increase week by week. I think we’re going to see an explosion of radio, television and mail order advertising, and billboards.
“We’re still kind of, not completely in the honeymoon period, but we’re still in the early period.”
Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics blog at blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.