By: Ginger Gibson
March 29, 2013 04:52 PM EST
Sen. Mary Landrieu hasn’t gotten the memo for 2014 red-state Democrats: run scared.
Instead, she is happily following her own playbook.
The Louisianian confidently voted last week for the Democratic budget with its $1 trillion in tax hikes. She was one of only 20 Democrats who favored keeping the medical device tax, an element of Obamacare that some Democrats have worked to abolish. Along with other Democrats, she backed a handful of amendments opposed by senators from conservative states restricting health care for immigrants and politically charged language to curb a cellphone assistance program.
“I do not scare easily,” Landrieu told POLITICO. “I think it’s in my DNA. I come from a family that feels very passionately and very strongly about public service and about trying to always find a balance and keep our eyes focused on representing the people and not getting too caught up in the politics of the day.”
“I’m not saying I’m fearless, and I certainly try not to be reckless,” she added. “I can be very forward when I feel strongly about it, and I think the [Paul] Ryan budget and the [Gov. Bobby] Jindal type rhetoric is very damaging to the future economic growth of our country and the middle-class families.”
Red-state Democratic senators up for reelection in 2014 — including Landrieu and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and freshmen Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina — face particularly difficult challenges. From conservative states where President Barack Obama is often unpopular, they must balance their support for their party and the Senate Democratic leadership, with the often more right-of-center politics of their constituents.
But Landrieu — who is serving her third term after being reelected in 2008 with 52 percent of the vote, the same percentage as in 2002 — is confident she’s figured out the right formula. Landrieu says voting on principle is more important than changing her positions to avoid campaign attack ads.
In a move that could produce such ads, Landrieu hasn’t ruled out supporting some gun-control measures. And she hasn’t closed the door on backing gay marriage should it come to a vote in the Senate.
And the last thing she’s worried about is having Republicans attack her for supporting Obamacare.
“I am proud of my support for the Affordable Care Act, whether my opponents want to call it ACA or Obamacare, I voted for it. I’m glad I voted for it,” Landrieu said.
“I’m going to do everything I can to see that people in Louisiana — one of the states that has the highest number of uninsured, one of the highest death rates in America from cancer, one of the highest rates of diabetes — have a chance for a decent health care system. If I have to stand up to the tea party and I have to stand up to Gov. Jindal, there is nothing that scares me about that whatsoever.”
Republicans in the state call Landrieu arrogant for her enthusiastic embrace of Democratic principles. They have a slate of respected candidates gearing up to challenge the incumbent.
Even Republicans admit she is a fighter who is going to raise large sums of campaign cash and has managed to keep some conservatives in her corner by fighting for the oil industry, which is pivotal to Louisiana’s economy. Vice President Joe Biden was in the state to fundraise for her earlier this year.
“She is a dogged, dogged fighter,” said Bob Mann, communication director for former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). “She will take no prisoners. She is not going to go quietly. That’s just her nature when it comes to everything.”
Mann, who also served as communication director for former Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D-La.), compared trying to take the Senate seat from Landrieu to taking a salmon from a grizzly bear, adding he would rather challenge the bear.
“Even people who don’t agree with Mary on the issues will give her that she fights for Louisiana,” Mann said. “People will also say the same thing about David Vitter on the other side.”
Landrieu has a growing brand that was founded by her father, Moon Landrieu, who was a well-liked New Orleans mayor, and enhanced by the popularity of her brother Mitch Landrieu, the former lieutenant governor who is receiving rave reviews since taking over as New Orleans mayor in 2010. A November poll put Mitch Landrieu’s job approval number at 88 percent.
And a February Public Policy Polling survey put his statewide favorability at 49 percent (Mary Landrieu’s wasn’t tested) — besting Sen. Vitter who had a 46 percent approval rating.
Landrieu is looking to tap staffers who worked in 2012 for Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s campaign in conservative North Dakota, including hiring her pollster Mark Mellman.
There is one area in which Landrieu is more than willing to go up against Democrats. During a recent Senate vote-a-rama on the Senate budget, she voted in favor of a measure recommending approval of the Keystone pipeline, which would bring oil to nearby Texas refineries and potentially provide more business for oil companies in her state.
“I was happy to vote for the budget because it authorized the Keystone pipeline, which I very much support,” Landrieu said.
Still, Republicans plan to use her votes against her in a deep red state Mitt Romney won by 17 percentage points. And that was after voting in the primary to nominate Rick Santorum, who nabbed 49 percent of the vote, besting Romney by 22 percentage points.
“Over the last 15 years, Sen. Landrieu has lost touch with her state and transformed into a Washington liberal, evidenced by her consistent support for President Obama’s most controversial initiatives like Obamacare, massive tax hikes, and bloated unbalanced budgets,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
And it took less than 24 hours after the budget vote for the Louisiana Republican Party to blast her.
“Her votes reflect her true, liberal colors,” said chairman Roger Villere. “Mary can no longer disguise herself as a moderate. She’s a tax-and-spend politician who votes with President Obama more than 95 percent of the time.”
But no Republican has declared against her yet.
Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge Republican who got into politics in the past decade, is often cited as a possibility. But he lacks support from power brokers such as Vitter and Jindal.
Rep. John Fleming, who represents rural North Louisiana, is looking at a run, but politicians from outside the more densely populated southern part of the state tend not to fare well statewide. And insiders in both parties warn he is gaffe prone.
Former Rep. Jeff Landry, a tea party favorite who lost a Republican vs. Republican race in 2012 after redistricting, has hinted he could run.
Republicans are also courting rising star Scott Angelle, who won election to the Public Service Commission (a district the size of a congressional seat). But he’s rumored to be considering a gubernatorial run in 2015 when Jindal’s term expires.
Landrieu is the only Democrat who holds statewide office. The state Democratic Party opted not to endorse anyone challenging Jindal in his 2011 reelection bid after failing to recruit a legitimate candidate. Jindal took 66 percent of the vote.
When it comes to taxes, she’s willing to draw sharp contrasts between herself and the popular Republican governor — a possible 2016 presidential candidate — who has proposed eliminating all of the state’s income taxes in exchange for increasing the sales tax.
“Governor Jindal is running into a buzz saw with his suggestion to put the entire tax burden on the backs of the middle class,” Landrieu said. “There is a big contrast there and I think ultimately people understand that you’ve got to have a balance of revenues and effective government programs.”
Landrieu’s go-it-alone approach was on full display when the Senate narrowly passed its budget in the early morning hours of March 23.
As Hagan and Begich lingered in the chamber after most senators had cast their votes, Majority Leader Harry Reid, Whip Dick Durbin and Caucus Chairman Chuck Schumer huddled around the podium reviewing the tally.
After the three conferred, Hagan and Beigch walked up to vote against the budget, presumably after it had been settled that their votes wouldn’t bring it down.
By that time, Landrieu was already on her way out of the Capitol.
“I don’t have any hesitation voting for the budget,” Landrieu said. “The [Patty] Murray budget is very balanced and calls for revenues by closing — there weren’t real specifics — but the idea is to close tax loopholes and to find additional revenues to come in through the federal government.”