In Louisiana, Democrats Doth Protest Too Much

by Stuart Rothenberg November 1, 2013 · 11:03 AM EDT

If you were a Democrat who thought the GOP was heading toward selecting a weak nominee incapable of beating Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., next year, would you tear down that damaged candidate, knowing that it might bring stronger hopefuls into the race? Or would you keep your mouth shut, so Republicans would nominate the sure loser?

The answer is obvious, which is why all the huffing and puffing by the Campaign for Louisiana, a project of the Louisiana Democratic Party, about how terrible Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy’s Senate campaign is doesn’t make much sense.

It doesn’t make sense, unless, of course, the folks at the Campaign for Louisiana are worried about Cassidy and are simply using every opportunity to try to discredit him. Now that would be shocking, wouldn’t it?

In its Oct. 25 press release, the Campaign for Louisiana described Cassidy’s campaign as “listless” and “in serious trouble,” and the group’s recently appointed communications director, Andrew Zucker, called the three-term congressman from Baton Rouge “a weak and seriously flawed candidate whose campaign is on the ropes.”

If Zucker really believes that, he ought to be praying that Cassidy will be the Republican nominee in 2014 rather than belittle him.

Cassidy certainly has been taking some heat recently. First, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato moved the Louisiana Senate race to Lean Democrat from Tossup, citing both the damaged GOP brand and the fact that Cassidy “has not impressed with his fundraising.”

Then, Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte wrote that the Republican’s campaign had “hit bumps” and cited “whispers that he’s just not the right candidate to beat Landrieu.”

Cassidy certainly isn’t the most dynamic, back-slapping politician in the state, and he may not be the ideal challenger to Landrieu. So what? Look down the list of current and former senators, and you’ll see many who were not “ideal.” (Both the Senate majority leader and minority leader are charisma-challenged.)

Yes, the senator outraised the congressman last quarter and ended September with almost $5.8 million in the bank, compared with Cassidy’s almost $3.5 million. But that’s not a prohibitive advantage, because challengers don’t need to match incumbents dollar-for-dollar to win.

In fact, Cassidy’s financial position at the end of September was quite good. He had more in cash on hand than any other non-incumbent and 17 incumbent senators seeking re-election this cycle. In Kentucky, for example, heavily publicized Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes showed just under $2 million in the bank, about a fifth of what her likely general-election opponent, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, has in cash on hand.

In 2007, Landrieu showed $3.35 million in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter, and she didn’t even have an announced opponent until the end of November. She ended up outspending her Republican opponent, John Kennedy, $10.1 million to $4.8 million for the entire race.

We are now in the age of super PACs, and Louisiana will likely be awash in political ads next year. Neither Landrieu nor Cassidy is likely to lose because of a lack of resources, so focusing on the Sept. 30 cash-on-hand differential is hardly convincing.

Given the state’s lack of enthusiasm for President Barack Obama, as evidenced by his showings in 2008 and 2012 (when he lost to Mitt Romney in the state by 17 points), I’m not sure how much damage Republicans suffered in the Pelican State as a result of the government shutdown, or how long-lasting any of it will be.

In fact, a survey conducted during the shutdown by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling for the liberal group Americans United for Change showed Landrieu leading Cassidy by only 48 percent to 41 percent.

Landrieu has now defeated three mediocre Republican Senate opponents — Louis “Woody” Jenkins, Suzanne Haik Terrell and Kennedy — in a state that was relatively late to realign. Her best showing was against Kennedy, when she drew an unimpressive 52 percent. Of course, that was in 2008, a good year for Democrats that included presidential year turnout.

There is no reason to believe that Landrieu, who is rightly regarded as an excellent campaigner, has become dramatically stronger over the past six years, and Democrats will have to work hard to avoid a damaging drop-off in black turnout in the off-year election. They may do so, though nobody can know for sure now.

I don’t yet know whom Republicans will nominate in Louisiana next year, though Cassidy is a strong favorite right now. And I don’t yet know whether Cassidy will beat Landrieu when Election Day rolls around about a year from now. But I do know unconvincing partisan spin when I hear it.