BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Six years ago, Sen. Mary Landrieu's effort to draw billions of dollars in federal disaster aid to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina helped keep her in office for a third Senate term.
Since then, Landrieu has lost much of that post-Katrina goodwill. The prominent Republican support she garnered in 2008 from local elected officials whose parishes and towns were ravaged by Katrina and Hurricane Rita in 2005 has withered amid sharper partisan divides.
As Election Day nears, Landrieu and Democratic Party surrogates have amped up the references to hurricane recovery, trying to remind voters of her disaster aid work as they seek support to keep her in the Senate even though the state is growing ever more Republican.
Disaster recovery was featured in a recent Landrieu TV ad, and the rallying cry has been sounded in the campaign.
"Mary Landrieu never stopped fighting for the people of Louisiana when we needed her the most, when we were on our knees, when we were going through the rubble of our lives, while we were picking through the smelly debris that destroyed our homes and our livelihoods," state Rep. Walt Leger, a New Orleans Democrat and No. 2 House member, told voters at a recent campaign rally.
Louisiana's only Democratic statewide elected official, Landrieu is targeted by Republicans trying to pick up six seats and regain control of the Senate. Her leading GOP challengers are U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy and tea party favorite Rob Maness.
If no candidate captures a majority of votes, the top two advance to a head-to-head contest to be settled Dec. 6, and polls show Landrieu and Cassidy headed to a runoff. That suggests trouble for Landrieu, if after 18 years in office she can't win outright. Her campaign is revisiting hurricanes Katrina and Rita to drive home their claim that Landrieu's seniority and her clout as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee matter more to Louisiana than the "D'' behind her name.
It's been nine years since both storms, which are blamed for 1,464 deaths in Louisiana and the destruction of more than 200,000 homes across southern parishes. Federal levee failures in New Orleans after Katrina struck caused catastrophic flooding from which the city continues to recover. Some neighborhoods hardest hit by the hurricane still have a patchwork of vacant lots, in some instances with cement slabs, where houses once stood.
Landrieu worked to funnel billions in aid home, raising her profile fighting in Congress for additional recovery money after Republicans questioned whether a state with a history of corruption could be trusted to responsibly handle the dollars.
That effort garnered Landrieu re-election support from several prominent Republicans in storm-damaged areas, endorsements that caused a rift in the state GOP. The most high-profile officials who backed Landrieu in 2008 — Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and then-St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis — have been silent on this year's campaign.
Normand, representing a populous parish in the New Orleans suburbs, skipped a Senate endorsement and wouldn't talk to The Associated Press about that decision. Davis, now Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's emergency preparedness director, also didn't respond to questions about his prior endorsement or the race. Davis' successor in St. Tammany Parish, Republican Pat Brister, hasn't backed a Senate candidate and refused to explain why, with her spokesman saying she wanted to stay out of it.
That's not necessarily a knock against Landrieu. But it also isn't something she can use for her campaign.
Cassidy dismisses claims that Landrieu gets full credit for the post-disaster money, saying many members of Congress championed that work.
"Our delegation brought millions to the state. Our delegation did," he said. "If the only thing that is justifying her re-election is her claiming credit for that which everyone else did, that's one more reason to vote for Cassidy for Senate."
As she works to turn the memories of Katrina recovery into votes, Landrieu also has new items to add to the disaster recovery record.
She's added aid for Hurricane Isaac in 2012 to her list of accomplishments and hits Cassidy for voting against legislation that included the money. She's also highlighted her push through last year to get $391 million in federal disaster loans written off for local sheriffs, cities and municipal agencies, rather than requiring their repayment.