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The Bayou Politics of Louisiana's Midterm Elections

Louisiana's Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is fighting a rising tide of conservatism in the Bayou State.

by Anthony Taille
Nov 1 2014, 6:53pm

Photos by Mike Weeks

​"It sure ain't going to change anything for me," said the man, looking at the campaign signs posted along the road in Larose, a small town in Louisiana. The air is always damp in this part of the state the sky heavy with rolling clouds coming from the gulf. For a number of people here, Louisiana's upcoming US Senate elections don't mean much. "I'll be on my boat catching oysters," the man, a rugged fisherman Cajun in his forties, added motioning to the rusted drawbridge rising over Bayou Lafourche. Life goes slow and work is hard for him, as it does for many in the oil and fishing industries who spend their weeks drilling on offshore rigs, crabbing in Terrebonne Bay, or operating related service businesses.

"I make a living here. My kids, they go to school here, they grow up here. People keep forgetting about us but we ain't going nowhere," the man said. "I don't believe a politician can bring any change to that." The feeling seems to be shared among many Cajuns here. The swamps around the Atchafalaya River belong to another world. Politics are a local matter, here, with people more concerned about down-to-earth issues than distant rhetoric for which they have no time to spend. "You should ask the crabs what they think of it," someone shouted, showing a crate full of crustaceans. "They can't be more wrong than we are."​

Across the country, the ​​2014 midterms have been rough on Democrats​. With control of the Senate at stake, the race is bound to be very tight, with most forecasts giving the GOP around a 65 percent chance of gaining the six seats they need to win a majority. Republicans have an edge in competitive states like Arkansas, Alaska, and Colorado, as well as here in Louisiana, where Democratic incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu is locked in a heated campaign for reelection against Republican challenger, Congressman Bill Cassidy.

After three terms in office, Landrieu finds herself in the fight for her political life, tainted by her association with an unpopular Democratic president in a state that has taken a hard turn to the right over the past two decades. Polls currently show ​​Landrieu narrowly leading Cassid​y in Tuesday's three-way election, and then losing to him in a runoff on December 6, once Tea Party candidate Rob Maness is knocked out of the race. But in Louisiana, politics is local, and Landrieu has been making a hard sell in recent months, traveling from parish to parish to convince voters that, despite her party affiliation, she's the candidate who will deliver for the state. ​

At the D&D drive-in restaurant in Larose, some voters had trouble forgiving Landrieu for supporting President Barack Obama's policy agenda, including her vote for Obamacare, a central attack line from her Republican opponents. But the Senator's deep ties to the oil and gas industry--which Landrieu has been talking up on the campaign trail--has been helping her cause. "As long as she supports us, I don't care for the rest," said Andrew Ledet, a mechanic who works with oil companies. 

Cassidy didn't get much more praise. "I find him bland," an older man mumbled, eating his chili dog. Maness, a retired Air Force Colonel, gets some credit here for wrestling an alligator in one of his campaign ads, but in the end none of the candidates seemed to really resonate with the locals in this town of 4,000.​In Port Fourchon, at the southernmost tip of conservative Lafourche Parish on the Gulf of Mexico, fisherman John Fontenot was taking a lunch break in the city's commercial marina. "Landrieu has done a lot for Louisiana," he said. Cranes moved in the background, loading and unloading containers on the docks. "She's been helping the shrimping industry. She's petitioning for the Keystone pipeline. She's against the government wanting to cut deep water drilling. I never liked Obama and I won't vote for a Democrat at the White House, but I trust her to run Louisiana. That's what counts for me." A man behind Fontenot laughed and said, "She's experienced, right. But she's been here for too long. She's too comfortable. Time for someone else--someone not crooked you know? Someone real." Asked if Cassidy would fit the description, the man replied, in typical Cajun fashion, "What's a Cassidy?" ​

Theoretically, Landrieu should be the obvious favorite to win this year's Senate race. A staunch supporter of the state's oil and gas industry, she chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and has succeeded in winning billions of dollars for the state for the BP oil spill clean-up, and before that for Hurricane Katrina recovery. On top of that, she has a near-perfect political pedigree in Louisiana. Her father, Moon Landrieu, was a beloved former mayor of New Orleans who fought for civil liberties and gave black people access to high positions in the city's offices, and her brother Mitch currently holds the office.

Support for Landrieu is still strong in New Orleans, where the liberal voter base is well-established. "I've been raised in a family of seven," said Tyler Bell, a musician living in the 7th Ward. "I know what it's like being poor. My mother used to tell me stories of [...] the segregation and everything, and how it was for her back then. Now today ain't perfect, right? But it's slowly becoming better. And Landrieu isn't perfect but she's my best choice if I want to keep it improving."

Landrieu's fate will likely rest with these voters, and particularly African Americans, who make up 60 percent of the city's population.The latest voter numbers indicate that registration among black voters has increased since 2008, but it's not clear how many of these new voters will show up for a midterm election. And in the likely event of a runoff, it's not clear if Landrieu's support in New Orleans will be enough to defeat Cassidy, who is expected to gain votes from Maness and benefit from traditionally higher midterm turnout among Republican voters. 

"That's why people need to act.," said Felicia Jones-Hebert, a waitress in a small café in the French Quarter. "I know I'll be watching this closely. Ain't nothing good about Republicans winning, I tell you. Do you remember how nobody in Washington lifted a finger for us after Katrina?"​

On a recent night near Vaughan's Lounge, a ramshackle watering hole in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood, a gathering of people were discussing the race. "I'll go vote for the first time ever in November," Keila Aldridge, a student at Louisiana State University, declared, waiting in line under the old bar's porch. Asked if she would return to the polls for a runoff in December, she said she would try depending on her schedule. "The Landrieu family has a great history in the state," another student chimed in as he ordered a po-boy, leaning on the faded wooden wall where colorful neon signs were illuminating the crowd. "I don't think Republicans have their place here. The city is too liberal for them." As music filtered through the doors, everyone seemed to be having a good time, waiting for the voting day to make their voices heard.

In Jena, the seat of La Salle Parish, voters I spoke to were more reserved about Landrieu. American flags fly on almost every street in this city, where the motto is A Nice Place to Call Home. The city made national headlines for the ​2006 Jena Six ​case​, a storm of racial confrontations surrounding the local high school that prompted enormous civil rights demonstrations. Located in one of the most solidly Republican parishes in Louisiana, Jena is unsurprisingly a bastion of support for Bill Cassidy. 

"We need the GOP to take over the Senate this year," Mitch Bradford, a local contractor, told me as he filled up supplies at Ace Hardware. "I don't need to be convinced, I already know Landrieu is playing Obama's game. It's always the same story."

"She's not even really living here," his wife Karen chimed in, referring to the fact that Landrieu has declared her parents' home as her primary residence in Louisiana, and spends most of her time in Washington, D.C.

Down the road at Mac's Supermarket, Chad Martinez likes Maness. "I'll give my vote to Maness. I guess Cassidy would be more strategic but I like Maness more," he said. "There's something authentic in Maness," he added. "Maybe it's because he's a retired military like me."

Among voters I spoke to in the parish, the default opinion seemed to be that Cassidy lacks personality--often thought to be essential to run for office in Louisiana--but is nevertheless preferable to Landrieu. Although Cassidy's decision to participate in only two debates has been criticized, even by Republicans, it has allowed the GOP candidate to campaign under the radar and avoid gaffes, keeping the focus on Landrieu and Obama.​

Incumbent Democratic Senators have typically had little trouble getting reelected in Louisiana. As surprising as it sounds now, Louisiana actually used to be a blue state, and even went for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, when Landrieu was first elected to the Senate. Since then, though, the Bayou State has been getting steadily redder. In 2008, John McCain carried Louisiana by 59 percent, and Mitt Romney won by a similar margin in 2012. Practically every parish in Louisiana, with the exception of the New Orleans and Baton Rouge metro areas, is now reliably Republican. 

Despite the shift, Landrieu managed to narrowly survive her first reelection race in 2002, and easily cruised to reelection in 2008, thanks to her popularity following Hurricane Katrina and increased voter turnout among black voters during Obama's first presidential campaign.

This time it's different. With ​Obama's approval ratings at an all-time low, Landrieu is struggling to explain some of her more liberal positions on social issues--she's pro-choice Democrat and supports same-sex marriage--as well as her votes in favor of Obama's key policy initiatives, specifically the Affordable Care Act. 

"She says she's going to fix it," said Carolyn Foncesca, a retail cashier in Houma. "It doesn't need to get fixed, it needs to go. I won't pay for it. I won't lose my job for it. Obama shoved it in our mouths and she was okay with that." 

The Senator also has a C rating from the National Rifle Association, which has come out in support of her opponents. During her current campaign, she's been slammed by her Republican opponents for ​improperly billing her Senate account for $30,000 in private ​flights​ used by her campaign--a controversy her opponents have used to discredit her as an out-of-touch elitist. Support for Cassidy is far from unanimous, even in the most conservative parishes, but it is enough to give Republicans their best chance at defeating Landrieu since she took office.

But life will go on in Louisiana, regardless of who wins the Senate race. The receding lands and misty bayous will keep being. Fishermen will keep fishing. Oil workers will keep drilling. Musicians will keep playing, and families will keep eating spicy Creole food. Because over all this, past the politics and the controversies, past the disparities and the statistics, people here are bonded with a common attachment to their culture and history--past the polls and the long-awaited promises of better tomorrows, a sheer love for everything that makes this place what it is, from brass band trombones to the taste of broiled crawfish. 

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