2014 Midterms: Key Issues in the Louisiana Senate Race

Editor’s Note: As part of the 2014 Midterm Elections Series, we’ve asked experts from the ten states with competitive Senate races to answer six questions in a spotlight on each race, providing perspective on the dynamics in the state as we head toward Election Day. In this post, Michael Henderson looks at key issues in the Louisiana Senate Race between Senator Mary Landrieu and Congressman Bill Cassidy.

1. What have been the three key issues in this year’s Senate race?

At its core, the Louisiana Senate race is not about policy but about a person – President Obama. Most voters in the state say their opinion of the president will be an important factor in how they decide. The issues cropping up in the campaign – health care, energy, immigration, even the prices and locations of the candidates’ homes – are more about tying Senator Landrieu to the president or distancing her from him than they are about policy specifics.    

2. How have the candidates handled these issues and which candidate has been the strongest on those issues?

Given the president’s low popularity in the state, Congressman Cassidy is emphasizing Senator Landrieu’s support for him. The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is a key part of this message. Senator Landrieu, while not explicitly criticizing the president, is emphasizing issues that highlight her independence from the national Democratic Party (e.g., immigration) or her experience in the Senate on issues with direct implications for the state (e.g., energy, military bases, disaster relief).

3. Have any other issues resonated specifically with key demographic groups or interests and what are the implications for the race?

Senator Landrieu has also emphasized senior benefits – Social Security and Medicare. Landrieu’s path to victory is narrow. In addition to turning out black voters, she will likely need roughly 30% of white voters to back her. This is a daunting task in a state where fewer than 15% of whites voted for the president. She has done well among voters over the age of 65 in the past. Carving out support among groups of white voters – such as seniors – will be necessary to win a fourth term. 

4. How have outside surrogates, SuperPACs, or other outside spending played a role in the race?

The campaign is shaping up to be the most expensive contest in the state’s history, in large part because of outside groups. Party committees, SuperPACs, and 501c groups have spent over $14 million on the race so far, about half of all campaign expenditures. The majority of this spending has been on the Democratic side, but this will likely shift if the race goes to a December runoff. Several pro-Republican groups have announced they are waiting for the runoff to spend the millions they have set aside for this race.

5. Midterms are often characterized by low turnout. What are your expectations about voter apathy/engagement in this race?

Typically only about 40-45% of registered voters in Louisiana show up for midterm elections with a Senate race. Unfortunately for Senator Landrieu, the drop in turnout from presidential to midterm elections is typically bigger among black voters than among white voters. There was a two point gap in the turnout rates of blacks and whites in 2012, but a nine point gap in 2010. To make matters worse for her, the engagement gap is not simply between white and black voters – it is between white Republicans, who appear particularly excited about turning out this year, and everyone else.

6. National media attention to this Senate race has been substantial. What important aspects have the media overlooked that may surprise outside observers on Election Day?

If Senator Landrieu loses her seat, it will be the first time since 1876 that the state has not had at least one Democrat in an office elected statewide. At a time when other southern states – Virginia, North Carolina, and even Georgia – have drifted to lighter shades of red if not blue, Louisiana elections are increasingly dominated by Republicans. A Democratic candidate has not won the governor’s office since 2003 or carried the state’s presidential vote since 1996. Each of Landrieu’s campaigns for the Senate have been competitive contests with margins ranging from less than half of a percent to six percent of the vote, but the days of competitive two party races in Louisiana may be gone for quite some time.