Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in a neck-and-neck race for re-election, is taking a lot of criticism over a new ad — her first this season — depicting herself taking on "Washington" to protect the interests of Louisiana's oil and gas industries. What Landrieu did to invite the ridicule was to re-create for her ad producers her own performance in a Senate hearing — complete with set, supporting cast, fake nameplate and even phony news chyrons — to show her standing up for her state.
The unspoken message of the ad — something Landrieu could never say directly — is that by fighting "Washington," Landrieu means fighting Democrats, and particularly President Obama, whose job approval rating is in the 30s in Louisiana. "For years, she's forced Washington to respect Louisiana," an announcer says at the beginning of the ad, leading up to a soundbite in which Landrieu says, "The administration's policies are simply wrong when it comes to oil and gas production in this nation."
Now, which administration might that be? Obviously, it's the Democratic president whom Landrieu — as Republicans never tire of pointing out — has supported in 95-plus percent of her votes in the Senate.
The ad touts Landrieu's stand against efforts to stop offshore drilling — a huge part of coastal Louisiana's economy. "Nothing about this moratorium makes sense," she says in the ad, referring to a proposed Obama administration cessation of offshore drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill. And who supported such a moratorium? Democratic lawmakers like Sens. Barbara Boxer, Sheldon Whitehouse, Patrick Leahy and others — all of whom, it just happens, have received generous contributions from Landrieu's political action committee, JAZZ PAC. During a visit to Louisiana a few weeks ago, I heard Landrieu's highest-rated Republican challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, note how much money Landrieu's PAC receives from the oil and gas industry, only to turn around and give it to Boxer, et al. "She's taking contributions from oil and gas interests and funneling them to people who hate oil and gas," Cassidy told me.
For Republicans in Louisiana, the fakery of Landrieu's ad represents a deeper disingenuousness in her campaign: She's trying to distance herself from a president and an administration of her own party whom she has supported up and down the line. "It's fitting that Landrieu's latest commercial tries to pass off video footage of a fake committee hearing as the real thing,” Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere said in a statement Tuesday evening. "This is another example of Mary Landrieu trying to create an alternate reality to fool Louisianans." Landrieu can "recreate a committee hearing," Villere added, "but she can't rewrite her track record."
From John Cummins, a spokesman for Cassidy: "If the only way Sen. Landrieu can get votes is by manipulating the truth, it's further proof we need change."
For political junkies, Landrieu's ad raised other issues. For one, its timing is an indication of Landrieu's concern — Republicans would call it desperation — about the race. "If she's advertising this early, she must be in trouble," says a well-connected state Republican, noting that a confident incumbent would not feel the need to start spending money for ads in mid-April. Indeed, when I talked to Democrats in the state a few weeks ago, they noted that while Landrieu had reserved air time for ads, she had not actually committed any money to airing them — suggesting that her campaign really wasn't all that concerned about polls showing her trailing Cassidy by a couple of points. Well, now she's spending money.
But in the end, Landrieu's much bigger problem is authenticity. Can she succeed by campaigning against a president she has supported so much? Landrieu has many assets in the race — she has been able to shower Louisiana with federal money and will undoubtedly bring even more pork dollars to the state in coming months. In the final count, that could well mean victory for her. But Landrieu has an authenticity problem she just can't shake — it's been building for the last six years — and if she loses, it will be because she couldn't oppose Obama and support him at the same time, and still win the support of Louisiana voters.