BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The last of the Deep South's statewide elected Democrats are hoping their seniority and famous family names will save them from the region's rightward trend in this year's Senate races. But Republicans say only one name matters in these rapidly realigning states: Barack Obama.
In Louisiana and Arkansas, Republican Senate candidates appear increasingly confident that they can focus almost exclusively on their opponents' ties to the president, who lost both states badly. They say it's time for the two states to bring Senate elections in line with the heavy GOP tilt of recent presidential results.
It no longer matters, Republicans say, that Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas hail from famous Democratic families and have seniority in Washington.
"We're running against Sen. Landrieu and Barack Obama," says Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Republican seeking to end Landrieu's career at 18 years. Asked about the legacies of Landrieu's father, Moon, and brother Mitch — the former and current mayors of New Orleans — Cassidy shrugged.
"If you go to our focus groups, I don't know if her name matters as much," he said. He said voters instead note that "she voted for health care, and she says she'd vote for it again." He was referring to the president's health care overhaul, also known as "Obamacare."
In Arkansas, Pryor emphasizes his home-state ties, and often mentions his father, David, who was a popular governor and senator. "When my dad was governor," Pryor told retirees in Pine Bluff on Wednesday, "he had a big senior initiative" called Area Agency on Aging.
His Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, focuses on more recent history. He says Pryor "votes 93 percent of the time with Barack Obama," and that should disqualify him in a state the president lost by 24 percentage points.
Pryor and Landrieu are campaigning hard, imploring voters to reward their seniority and familiarity even if it means keeping Obama's party in control of the Senate.
"I've lived here my whole life," Landrieu told a Baton Rouge gathering on a warm afternoon. She said her brother, "the New Orleans mayor," is working with her to end homelessness among military veterans. And after three Senate terms, she said, she finally chairs the Senate Energy Committee, important to the state's oil and gas industry.
It's crucial "to maintain the seniority and the clout that we have in Washington," Landrieu said. "It's your clout, it's not mine. It's Louisiana's clout."
GOP leaders say seniority is a poor excuse for electing Democrats in a state that overwhelmingly rejected Obama and put Republicans in control of the state government. Landrieu "uses her clout for Barack Obama," Cassidy says.
Moon Landrieu and David Pryor prospered in a time when Democrats dominated their states, and residents put higher values on pork barrel projects, committee chairmanships and other fruits of seniority. These Democratic family legacies, southern politicians say, are increasingly imperiled by hostility to Obama and Democrats' national image.
For Landrieu, "it makes it very, very difficult for re-election," said Jonathan Dean, the Democratic mayor of the small, central Louisiana town of Ball.
Dean calls himself "a conservative, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment Democrat," a brand still successful in many local southern elections. In a sign of Landrieu's challenge, he's endorsing no one in the Senate race.
Landrieu replaced her campaign manager this week, and Cassidy cites polls showing him ahead. He has agreed to only two October debates with Landrieu, who says he's afraid to have more encounters.
She pointed to his empty seat at a recent evening forum in the somber city council chambers of Kenner. Landrieu dryly thanked tea party-backed Republican Rob Maness "for having the guts" to attend.
Maness, seen as running a distant third, attacks Landrieu and Cassidy about equally. His presence raises the likelihood of a Dec. 6 runoff, probably between Cassidy and Landrieu.
In Louisiana's "jungle primary," all candidates, regardless of party, run on the Nov. 4 ballot. If no one exceeds 50 percent, the top two finishers enter a runoff.
In a runoff, Republicans will "have the enthusiasm advantage," said GOP Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. Speaking at a National Right to Life endorsement of Cassidy, Vitter called Landrieu "truly extremist."
Landrieu, sometimes speaking in the third person, says she's a centrist "willing to cross party lines" to help her state with matters such as flood insurance. Congress is often gridlocked by partisanship, she told the Kenner forum, "but Mary Landrieu and the way I work is not."
Some people wonder whether Cassidy is playing it too safe, relying almost entirely on anti-Obama sentiment and overlooking Landrieu's history of scratching out tough wins.
"I don't think he has defended himself enough" and explained his positions, said Joanie Bernius of Metarie, who attended the Kenner forum. Bernius said she has voted for Landrieu before but no longer tolerates her support for legalized abortion.
Associated Press Special Correspondent David Espo in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, contributed to this report.