BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Mary Landrieu is the last Democrat to hold statewide office in Louisiana, a state that Mitt Romney won easily in 2012 and where President Barack Obama remains highly unpopular.
It's not a new story for Southern Democrats, an endangered species that could take another step in that direction next month.
See: at risk Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, Landrieu's neighbor to the north and his state's last Democratic member of Congress.
But Landrieu hasn't yet succumbed to her main challenger, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, thanks in part to a large base of support among black voters in New Orleans and her strong ties to the state's dominant oil and gas industry.
There's also a tea party favorite, Republican Rob Maness, running in Louisiana's unique "jungle primary," in which everyone is on the Nov. 4 ballot regardless of party, and the top two vote-getters advance to a December runoff if no candidate wins the election with an outright majority.
And there are questions about Cassidy himself, who has repeatedly battled a perception within his own party that he perhaps wasn't the best choice to carry the GOP banner.
"This should be a cakewalk for Republicans, but it's still a toss-up as to whether or not Republicans can win Louisiana," said Tony Perkins, a Louisiana native who heads the conservative Family Research Council. "I would never underestimate Mary's strengths as a candidate. But I do think it's a combination of her strengths and, given the backdrop, Bill's inability to close the deal."
The contrasts between Landrieu and Cassidy are striking. He's a wonkish doctor from Baton Rouge who sometimes stumbles in speeches and lacks the back-slapping, good ol' boy verve that Louisiana voters often expect from their politicians.
While Landrieu's helped college football tailgaters with a keg stand and line-danced "The Wobble" on the campaign trail, Cassidy is more restrained and buttoned-up. His debate strategy while serving in the state Senate was more like that of a college professor than the fire-breathing oratory of Louisiana's political greats.
It's among the reasons that Perkins is supporting Maness, a retired Air Force colonel and tea party backed contender who calls Cassidy a career politician who is part of the Washington establishment and no better an option than Landrieu.
Maness criticizes Cassidy almost with the same vigor he has for Landrieu. Cassidy ignores him, saying pointedly, "I'm running against Sen. Landrieu. I frankly don't think about that."
As have most Republicans running for Senate this year, Cassidy has framed his message as a referendum on President Barack Obama. With the GOP needing a gain of six seats to win control of the chamber, he often tells voters they will tip the balance. He dismissed those questions about his abilities as a candidate.
"We feel good about where we are. We represent Louisiana. She represents Washington, D.C.," he said after a recent campaign stop to announce his endorsement from an anti-abortion group. "The more folks get that, the better we do."
Cassidy has the unwavering support of Louisiana's other U.S. senator, Republican David Vitter, who is popular and has worked hard behind the scenes to shut down suggestions the congressman couldn't seal the deal in a potential runoff against Landrieu — who has repeatedly squeaked out victories, even when tagged as vulnerable.
But while polls show Cassidy leading in the expected runoff, he remains locked in a close race with Landrieu, unable to surge ahead enough for a certain victory.
GOP strategist Timmy Teepell, whose firm is working for groups trying to defeat Landrieu, said Republicans can't afford to underestimate her political abilities. The way for Cassidy to beat her, he said, is harness support from undecided voters who are unhappy not with her, in particular, but with Obama.
"I think (Cassidy's) made incredible improvements as a candidate. He is a hard worker. He is smart," said Teepell. "And he's offering a compelling alternative to Mary Landrieu's rubber stamp for President Obama."
Suzanne Terrell, a Republican former elections commissioner who lost to Landrieu in 2002, said the barrage of TV ads attacking both Cassidy and Landrieu has given the GOP congressman too little time to tell voters about his own background.
"He is totally right on the issues that Republicans are concerned about," she said. "Cassidy needs to get out there and define himself and talk about what he believes just to put a comfort level in."
Baton Rouge-based pollster Bernie Pinsonat said Cassidy seems to be moving past criticism within the GOP that he's not conservative enough or personable enough to win. Such chatter, he said, is trumped by Cassidy's party affiliation in a state that has moved to the right.
"This race is about R and D. It's just that simple," Pinsonat said. "Cassidy's biggest problem is not so much that appearance stuff. He can't help Mary. He's got to avoid gaffes, mistakes, stupid stuff."