Mary Landrieu and Bill Clinton have a history together, at least as far as Louisiana’s concerned.
The veteran senator and the former president appeared on the same ballot 18 years ago, when Landrieu won her first term in Washington, and Clinton his second. But as much as their joint get-out-the-vote rally this week was a throwback to the days when Landrieu had a lot more company as a Southern Democrat in D.C., an awful lot’s changed since 1996.
Clinton’s changed — or his image has, anyway. Popular enough to draw a good 200,000 more Louisiana votes than Bob Dole back then, he lost his luster after the Monica Lewinsky mess before re-emerging as the Democrats’ beloved and much less divisive party leader emeritus. These days, his elder statesman status perfectly positions him to make a full-throated partisan pitch for his chosen candidates without worrying about alienating those on the other side. That’s just what he did Monday in Baton Rouge, where he roared about Landrieu’s populist priorities such as higher minimum wage and more college financial aid, and the energized crowd erupted with approval.
Landrieu, of course, has changed, too. Eighteen years ago, she was already a seasoned pol with two statewide wins for treasurer under her belt and one very high-profile loss for governor. But she had nothing like the record she’s since assembled on issues such as hurricane aid and offshore oil revenue sharing. Nor did she have the seniority that has landed her at the helm of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
And so while Landrieu trailed a popular Democratic president in 1996, by 2008, she was vastly outperforming an unpopular nominee. Barack Obama won the presidency after losing Louisiana to John McCain 59 percent to 40 percent, but Landrieu beat the man who now holds her old job as treasurer, John Kennedy, 52 to 46 percent, among the same voters. While Obama’s not on the ballot this time, Landrieu is once more desperately trying to overcome Obama’s reputation, even as her chief opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, hammers away at the connection.
The biggest change, though, is in Louisiana’s electorate itself.
Back in the 1990s, the state was very much in play, but the roots of a GOP swing were apparent. While it didn’t show up in presidential results, Landrieu was already bucking a trend. She got lucky in her opponent — Woody Jenkins was far-right and rigid enough to scare off some potential GOP voters — but even then, she won by just 5,000 votes. One sign of things to come was the price she apparently paid for her pro-choice views; this was the election in which retired Archbishop Phillip Hannan said it would be a sin to vote for either her or Clinton, a charge that clearly hurt her more than it affected the president.
Landrieu barely beat the odds once more in 2008, but back then, she had a lot more working in her favor, from a high African-American turnout for Obama’s historic election to recent memories of her strong post-Katrina record and the knowledge that the state still needed a lot more help to recover.
Now, the winds are blowing the other way. Obama’s approval ratings are in the dumps, control of the Senate could hinge on her survival or defeat, and the electorate is likely to be more white and more conservative (although registration figures suggest the Democrats did a good job of recruiting new black voters).
Add an overall sense of fatigue with all things Washington, which fueled old questions over Landrieu’s decision to live in D.C., and new ones over her office’s careless record of billing some campaign travel to the taxpayers.
Voters back in 1996 couldn’t have envisioned everything that’s happened since, although those with foresight could have predicted that she’d never have an easy path.
Clinton’s visit may well stir up memories of a very different time, but it does nothing to change the campaign’s longstanding dynamic. With just a week and a half left until the primary, Landrieu’s never been stronger. And she’s never been more vulnerable.