BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A failed effort to push approval of the Keystone XL pipeline through Congress behind her, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu now faces an even greater challenge to win a runoff election next month.
After narrowly leading the field on Nov. 4 as her party lost control of the Senate, Landrieu had pinned her bid for re-election on championing approval for the long-delayed Canada-to-Texas pipeline during the lame-duck Congress. While the pipeline would not pass through Louisiana, it would serve as a ready-made example of her clout in Washington for voters in a state with a robust oil and gas industry.
"I took to the floor of the United States Senate and used the power that comes from being a senator representing one of the great states in this nation to force a debate on an issue that I felt strongly about," Landrieu said not long after she and pipeline supporters in the Senate fell one vote shy of the 60 they need the advance the measure.
Complicating matters was the fact that Landrieu's runoff opponent, GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy, is able to tell voters that the Keystone XL pipeline bill he authored was approved with ease in the Republican-led House. "The Senate should have approved it today," Cassidy said in a statement. "It should have approved it six years ago."
As Landrieu now looks ahead to the Dec. 6 runoff election, the raw math of the Louisiana electorate remains a hurdle. Even before the pipeline effort failed, there was evidence in the results from the first round of voting on Election Day that a Keystone XL success wouldn't have been enough to help Landrieu in the parts of Louisiana where it would matter most.
Take, for example, the oil-and-gas industry hotbed of Calcasieu Parish. Cassidy combined with tea party favorite Rob Maness there to beat Landrieu by 14,421 votes, which is more than three times Landrieu's winning margin in the parish in her previous victory.
"I don't think it's going to resonate with voters back home one way or the other," Ted James, a Democratic state lawmaker from Baton Rouge and Landrieu supporter, said of her efforts to force construction of the pipeline.
While Landrieu won nearly all the ballots cast by black voters statewide on Nov. 4, she drew only 18 percent of the votes of whites who cast a ballot. Black voters make up 31 percent of Louisiana's electorate, while white voters comprise 64 percent. With the ballot narrowed to her and Cassidy, a repeat of her Election Day performance would doom her bid for a fourth term.
"I just don't know where you're going to get the votes. It just doesn't seem to me to be possible," said longtime Democratic political operative Robert Mann, now a mass communications professor at Louisiana State University. "She's a pretty strong swimmer, but the tide is pulling her out."
Beyond Keystone, Landrieu's campaign says the strategy to win back support among white voters includes shifting the race's focus away from national politics, highlighting her work on state priorities and, most importantly, trying to drive up voters' negative feelings about Cassidy.
Landrieu has repeatedly criticized Cassidy as out of step with Louisiana, citing his opposition to a federal minimum wage increase, his vote against disaster aid after Hurricane Isaac and his support for raising the Social Security retirement age to 70 for younger people paying into the system.
James said Landrieu also needs to tie Cassidy to Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, an unpopular leader who has endorsed the GOP candidate, and steer talk away from President Barack Obama if possible.
"The only way I see her winning this race is talking about Louisiana," he said. "If this race is about Obama, she can't win."
Landrieu points to her victory in 2002 as proof she can squeak out another. Her top three Republican rivals bested her by a combined 58,000 votes in the first round of voting that year, but she ultimately prevailed by 42,012 votes in the runoff.
Landrieu now limps into the final weeks of her campaign behind in the polls and without the fundraising advantage she had headed into the first vote. While outside groups have continued to buy TV ads to back Cassidy, Landrieu has been abandoned by national Democrats on the airwaves.
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.