The chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has been on the defensive after it was revealed that she used official Senate dollars to pay for at least four flights to campaign-related events.
Even more directly, Landrieu was outraised in the last quarter by Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and now finds herself with less cash on hand than the conservative doctor.
Landrieu has dismissed the brouhaha over her charter flights as a bookkeeping issue, but political insiders in the Bayou State say the self-inflicted wound has redefined the race.
“At first, I didn’t think it would be of any consequence, but it actually blew up and got a lot more publicity than I thought it would,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a Louisiana pollster who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats. “There’s a trend here. She can apologize all she wants, but it has clearly hurt her.”
“It’s almost unbelievable what has happened,” Pinsonat added, calling it the “first opportunity for Cassidy to take command of this campaign.”
Cassidy has a one-point edge over Landrieu, according to a Real Clear Politics average of surveys, meaning the race is in a statistical tie two months before voters head to the polls. However, both Republicans and Democrats would concede that momentum, for the moment, is on Cassidy’s side.
Some conservatives have been surprised by how Cassidy has run a relatively quiet campaign, opting to sit on much of his campaign war chest even as Landrieu attempted to tie him to the far-right wing of the Republican Party. The Louisiana congressman held back even amid a challenge on the right from Air Force Col. Rob Maness, the Tea Party candidate.
Cassidy has remained well ahead of his conservative challenger and is now hoping to break the virtual tie with Landrieu.
Cassidy’s campaign will certainly get more aggressive in coming weeks, and the “Air Mary” label will be used to paint Landrieu as an entitled creature of Washington.
“This has been huge. This is definitely a turning point in the race,” predicted a Cassidy campaign source. “Charter-gate gave a symbol to the larger problems people have had with Sen. Landrieu for a long time. There’s the fact that she charters flights for events a few hundred miles away in Louisiana — you have that level — not only were the flights extravagant, they were illegal.”
Landrieu has called for her staff to review all flights she has taken as a senator. However, Cassidy's supporters say the public shouldn’t trust Landrieu to police herself.
The Landrieu campaign did not respond to requests for comment on her handling of the flights.
Cassidy, the gastroenterologist, has repeatedly hammered Landrieu for her support of Obamacare and other progressive policies. In response, Landrieu has tried to distance herself from the president by highlighting her support for the Keystone XL pipeline and energy initiatives popular with Louisianans.
Landrieu is the lone Democrat left in statewide office in Louisiana — a state Mitt Romney carried by 17 points in 2012. Still, she has unparalleled name recognition around the Big Easy. Her brother Mitch is mayor of New Orleans, as was her father, Moon, who also served as President Jimmy Carter's secretary of housing and urban development.
Under Louisiana’s unique open primary system, a runoff between the top two vote-getters is triggered if no candidate receives a majority of support in November.
Given how close the control of the Senate will be, a possible December runoff could be a high-stakes affair that determines which party is in charge in President Obama's last two years.
The Cassidy campaign isn’t dismissing the likelihood that the race won’t be decided until December, given that neither candidate now is receiving more than 50 percent of the vote in recent polls. And they think that scenario looks good for them.
“A runoff election 30 days later, on a Saturday, for a candidate whose base isn’t motivated in a non-presidential year,” the Cassidy campaign source said of Landrieu, “that doesn’t work well for her.”