At election time, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu always has a tricky line to walk on abortion, balancing her Catholic faith and Louisiana’s strong anti-abortion stances with her Democratic politics and her support of abortion rights.
Heading into the Nov. 4 election appears to be no different, and Landrieu critics are hoping to use the wedge issue to undermine her bid to be re-elected to a fourth term.
Both of her Republican opponents, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy and tea party favorite Rob Maness, oppose abortion with only one exception, when the mother’s life is threatened. As part of his campaign, Maness has highlighted Landrieu’s support of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
Meanwhile, national anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List has launched a ground offensive against the senator, with five field offices across Louisiana and volunteers knocking on thousands of doors.
“We see this really as being an unprecedented effort to have as many face-to-face conversations as we can before Election Day to inform them about Mary Landrieu’s record. Her voting record is out of step with the majority view in Louisiana,” said Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List and its Women Speak Out PAC.
The 58-year-old Landrieu has tried to downplay the issue during her long political career, saying that abortions should be as rare as possible but that she thinks women should have the right to make their own decisions about whether to have one.
“Sen. Landrieu believes that life is precious and a gift from God, but that every birth involves at least two lives: the life of the unborn child and the life of the mother. The government should not be involved in forcing decisions that are very personal and essentially family — and private — matters,” Landrieu spokesman Matthew Lehner said in a statement.
That position appears out of step in a state where both Republican and Democratic state lawmakers pass new abortion restrictions nearly every year with wide bipartisan support, including one taking effect in September that could close three of the state’s five abortion clinics. Louisiana also has a law on the books that immediately outlaws abortion if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned.
As a moderate Democrat in a conservative state, Landrieu repeatedly has grappled with the issue of abortion over the years and in most of her U.S. Senate campaigns, finding herself at odds with local leaders of her own faith.
“I think she definitely sees it as a vulnerability,” Quigley said.
Despite a position that seems to put her at odds with a majority of voters in the state, abortion so far hasn’t been an issue that kept Landrieu from the Senate, where she’s served for 18 years. But it has created consistent political headaches.
When Landrieu first ran for the Senate in 1996, the retired archbishop in her hometown of New Orleans said no Catholic should vote for Landrieu because of her support for abortion rights. Her opponent, then-state Rep. Woody Jenkins, a leader in the state’s anti-abortion movement in the Legislature at the time, made abortion a central issue in the tight race.
In her 2002 re-election bid, Landrieu was pushed to clarify her feelings about abortion, in a race where her Republican runoff opponent was also Catholic but opposed the procedure. In a debate, Landrieu called herself “pro-life” and said she doesn’t promote abortion, while adding: “But I emphatically say that women or their doctors or their families should not be put in jail for a medical procedure.”
Three years later, the New Orleans archbishop scolded Loyola University, a Catholic institution, for announcing it would award a collective honorary doctorate degree to Landrieu and her family for their public service, saying “not all members of the family have been faithful to the church’s teaching.”
Landrieu’s office points to the senator’s vote to ban late-term abortions and her work in Congress on domestic and international adoption, as a way to reduce the number of abortions.
But the Louisiana Right to Life Federation ranks Landrieu with a 27 percent “pro-life voting record” since 1997 and says she’s voted against all anti-abortion legislation they’ve tracked since her last re-election in 2008.
The Guttmacher Institute, which supports legal access to abortion and tracks the number of procedures across states, said Louisiana had about 13 abortions for every 1,000 women aged 15-44 in 2011, the latest data available. That was below the national rate of nearly 17.