Landrieu’s Gun Vote: A Possible Political Explanation

by Stuart Rothenberg April 23, 2013 · 9:30 AM EDT

Three red-state Democratic senators up for re-election next year – Alaska’s Mark Begich, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor and Montana’s Max Baucus – voted against the gun control measure offered by Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., but not Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu.

Republicans are already licking their chops, barely able to hide their glee and control their euphoria. And they may well defeat Landrieu next year, when she seeks a fourth term. But anyone who thinks Landrieu is politically deaf ought to think again.

I don’t know whether Landrieu can survive her gun vote – or her votes for the Democratic Senate budget and the Obama health care bill – but the veteran Democrat certainly had political reasons for doing what she did on guns (if politics was part of her calculation).

Landrieu always depends on a huge turnout in the black community and a near sweep of the black vote to win election, and voting against the president on guns might have poisoned her relationship with that community. And if Mary loses black voters, Mary can’t win.

In 2008, according to exit polling in the Senate contest, when she last stood for re-election, Landrieu won 96 percent of the black vote to 2 percent for Republican John Kennedy, the state treasurer. Interestingly, Landrieu received a larger percentage of the black vote in Louisiana than did Barack Obama (94 percent), according to the presidential exit poll.

Landrieu lost white voters to Kennedy, 65 percent to 33 percent, but she easily outperformed Obama that year among whites, since he carried just 14 percent of white voters in the state in his White House bid.

Landrieu ended up winning with 52 percent statewide, while Obama drew only 40 percent of the vote in the Pelican State.

Obviously, Landrieu needs to hit certain percentages of both black and white votes to win, but if politics starts with base voters, Landrieu knows which voters she can’t afford to lose during her 2014 re-election bid. She must have a huge black turnout, and she must win almost unanimous support in that community. Her support in the white community, after all, is not likely to increase between 2008 and 2014.

Of course, Landrieu has a problem. Black turnout is likely to drop off in the next midterm, just as it did between 2008 — when African-Americans constituted 29 percent of the electorate — and 2010, when they were only 24 percent of the electorate. If that happens again, Landrieu will have a huge political migraine. (Unfortunately, there was no Louisiana exit poll in 2012.)

So the Democratic senator needs to find ways to boost black turnout in 2014, and guns may be one way to do that.

So, while Sens. Begich, Pryor and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., need to be focused on their appeal with white, conservative voters, Mary Landrieu must have a very different constituency in mind as she approaches her bid for re-election next year. And her vote on the gun compromise actually makes political sense.