How Mary Landrieu Used Message Discipline to Overcome McCain’s Coattails...

The 2008 U.S. Senate election in Louisiana was one of the banner races of the cycle. Incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, a centrist Democrat %uFB01rst elected to the post in 1996, was seeking a third term. Early on, the race became the No. 1 Senate target for national Republicans. Eventually, it was their only pick-up target among the 12 Democratic Senate seats on the ballot.

GOP strategists looked forward to the slugfest. Here was a contest where they could play offensively. Given the defensive crouch in which the party found itself in Senate contests from New Hampshire to New Mexico, Oregon to Virginia, Colorado to North Carolina, it was a unique ray of hope—something to point to when pundits asked about the growing list of Republican vulnerabilities. Of course, Landrieu ultimately won the race on Nov. 4. But pulling off that victory was no easy task. It took $11 million, prudent strategy and a highly disciplined message campaign that stressed her record of %uFB01ghting and delivering for Louisiana. It also took a campaign that stayed on the offense despite heavy opposition attacks.

In the Crosshairs
Mary Landrieu was elected to the Louisiana state House at age 23, when she upset an incumbent. Her father, Moon, had served as mayor of New Orleans (1970-1978) and done a stint as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Jimmy Carter’s cabinet.

Landrieu was elected state treasurer in 1987. In 1995, the 39-year old Landrieu ran for governor, barely missing a runoff berth in Louisiana’s all-party, open-election system. She jumped back into the campaign fray the following year when she sought the seat vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston. Landrieu edged state Rep. Woody Jenkins, her major Republican rival and a favorite of social conservatives, by less than 6,000 votes out of 1.7 million cast.

In her 2002 Senate reelection, Landrieu faced three Republican challengers in the open primary. Running first against the field with 46 percent of the vote, Landrieu failed to win the requisite majority to avoid a December runoff with state Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell, a Republican. National Republicans threw everything they had at the Louisiana runoff but Landrieu held on—winning reelection by 51.7 percent.

Looking toward 2008, Republicans saw Landrieu as vulnerable. That she had won both of her Senate races with slim margins was naturally attractive. But there were two other factors that got the party’s attention.

First, the state’s recent electoral history. Though Democrat Bill Clinton carried Louisiana in 1992 and 1996, Republican George Bush won the Bayou State handily in 2000 and 2004, the last time by a 15-point margin. Also in 2004, David Vitter became the first Republican ever popularly elected to the U.S. Senate from Louisiana. In 2007, Republican Bobby Jindal was elected governor, winning 54 percent of the vote in a 12-candidate field, GOP electoral wins were buttressed by a Democratic registration decline. In 2002, Democrats made up nearly 58 percent of the state’s electorate. By 2008, it had declined to a little over 52 percent.

Second, hurricane displacement. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina triggered the largest U.S. population migration since the Civil War. Several hundred thousand people were forced to leave their homes to find shelter. More than 90,000 voters moved away. Since most of them were African-American Democrats from New Orleans, this extraordinary diaspora became a big political factor. Republican strategists calculated that Landrieu, who won her last election by 42,000 votes, would have a struggle holding on to her seat given these trends. What they couldn’t calculate was the effect of the presidential race on voter turnout or how many displaced voters would re-register in other parts of the state.

And who would take on Mary Landrieu? Republicans once hoped then-Rep. Bobby Jindal would run. But his 2007 election as governor took him out of Senate contention. Of the other four Republican U.S. House members, none wanted to make the race.

That left State Treasurer John N. Kennedy, 56, as the top Republican challenger. But there was one problem: He was a Democrat.

Kennedy’s party label didn’t stop GOP efforts to lure him into the race. Bush strategist Karl Rove even flew to the state to help recruit him. Polls showed Kennedy with good positive ratings, low negatives and fairly wide—though not deep—statewide recognition. In addition to getting elected treasurer twice, Kennedy had made unsuccessful bids for attorney general in 1991 and for the U.S. Senate against Republican David Vitter and Democrat Chris John in 2004.

After weighing the pros and cons of a party switch and a Senate candidacy, Kennedy decided to take the leap. Shortly before he %uFB01led for reelection as treasurer in the summer of 2007, he became a Republican. Kennedy was reelected without opposition and spent his war chest on positive ads strengthening his statewide recognition. In 2007, the state legislature removed congressional races from Louisiana’s open elections system. The 2008 Senate and House elections would be Louisiana’s %uFB01 rst since 1977 to have party primaries and a general election. The change meant that the 2008 Senate race, unlike 2002, would be decided in November without a December runoff.

In fall 2007, Kennedy announced he would run for the Senate. He released a Zogby poll showing him leading Landrieu by 7 points, 45 percent to 38 percent. This result was at odds with Landrieu’s polling, which showed her topping Kennedy by 12 points, 50 percent to 38 percent. A December 2007 poll had her up 13 points.

Landrieu’s polling also showed that most voters saw her as an effective %uFB01 ghter for the state, honest and hard working. Her successful, hard-fought battles for hurricane recovery assistance in the wake of the 2005 storms, and her longtime efforts on behalf of coastal protection and federal oil and gas revenue sharing with the states, branded her as a champion of Louisiana’s interests.

By the fall of 2007, the Landrieu reelection team was complete. Jay Howser captained the ship as campaign manager. Squier, Knapp & Dunn handled advertising and the Mellman Group did the polling. Norma Jane Sabiston, Landrieu’s former chief of staff and 1996 campaign manager, served as a consultant on political and fundraising activities. T. Bradley Keith, the senator’s former Senate state director and a longtime member of her high command, became communications director. Scott Schneider served as press secretary. Jessica Klonsky managed the re- search operation, Renee Lapeyrolerie served as political director, Joe Hansen advised the team and Blackrock Associates handled the Web campaign. Frank Snellings, the candidate’s husband, provided advice on a range of matters. My role was as a general consultant.

National fundraising was directed by Tina Stoll and Brandon Pollak of CFC and state fundraising was coordinated by Emilie Tennenbaum and Kate Magsamen. Throughout 2007, Landrieu raised money at an average clip of about $1 million a quarter—a sizable sum that gave her a $4 million war chest going into 2008.

Collecting contributions was a tougher task than one might have expected in a nationally targeted Senate race. Landrieu suspended the bulk of fundraising activities after Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t until early 2007 that fundraising resumed at a normal pace, and even then, many state givers were hard pressed to write checks. On top of that, in September before the election, hurricanes Gustav and Ike paused campaign activities, including fundraising. And as the U.S. Senate’s second most conservative Democratic member, Landrieu could not count on some of the more ideologically based fundraising sources that many Senate Democrats could bank on, especially liberal groups and Web-based “netroots” activists.

Landrieu won endorsements from both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but this centrist positioning kept her from being a favorite of either the hard left or the right. Though she was pro-choice, for example, and incurred the wrath of pro-life activists, her support for banning partial-birth abortion neutralized some key national pro-choice groups such as EMILY’s List, the money-machine that helps Democratic women candidates. These factors meant the Landrieu fundraising team had to overcome tough hurdles to raise the planned $11 million budget, but hard work and the candidate’s position as the only Democratic incumbent who was seen as endangered helped prime the money pump.

On the expenditure side, campaign manager Jay Howser’s careful budgeting made sure short-term and long-term spending plans focused on key priorities and essential goals, never exceeding available revenues. Plus, neither Landrieu nor Kennedy had opposition in their respective party primaries. That allowed both candidates to save most of their dollars for the general election shootout.

Define Yourself, Define the Opposition
The principal strategy of Landrieu’s media campaign was to define her Senate record before the opposition did, and to define her opponent before his campaign had a chance to do so. Consequently, the campaign went on television in mid-July, before Kennedy bought airtime.

The first Landrieu spot was a 60-second ad produced by Bill Knapp and Karen Olick. It focused on Landrieu’s role as a fighter for Louisiana who gets things done and delivers for the state. The ad communicated the campaign’s core message and was highly successful, increasing her poll tanding. A second spot linked the “fighting and winning for Louisiana” theme to Landrieu’s successful passage of landmark legislation in 2006 that opened up more than 8 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas production and shared a large portion of offshore revenues with coastal states—producing billions for Louisiana.

The next Landrieu spot aimed at defining Kennedy. It was about flip-%uFB02ops, office shopping and party switching. The ad, serious in substance but light in tone, was a classic strategic pincer: It pointed out how the same Kennedy who had endorsed John Kerry against George Bush for president in 2004 was now embracing Bush as a newly minted Republican. With one stone, it hit two birds (appealing to both Republicans and Democrats). The closing line: “John Kennedy, one confused politician.”

The ads solidi%uFB01ed Landrieu’s positive image, inoculated against expected attacks, knocked down Kennedy’s favorability rating from 42 to 30 percent and doubled his unfavorable score from 12 percent to 24 percent. Kennedy’s negative would rise to 39 percent by mid-October. Though outside groups ran television, radio and Web ads attacking Landrieu’s voting record as too liberal—usually on taxes, federal spending earmarks and immigration—Kennedy opened with a change message: “If you want to change the Senate, you have to change the senator.” He positioned himself as a fiscal conservative in the reform mold of the state’s popular new governor, Bobby Jindal.

As the price of gasoline shot up, Kennedy charged that his rival opposed oil shale energy production, a claim Landrieu—a pro-drilling, oil-state Democrat—roundly denied. It was an attempt to tie Landrieu to the Democratic majority in Congress, even though she had bucked her party on key energy tax votes.

There was also a sustained attempt to link Landrieu to Washington politics-as-usual, making an issue of campaign contributions she received from a variety of sources including a recipient of a federal earmark for a school reading program in Washington, D.C. A Washington-based organization called CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) had gone after Landrieu months earlier on the issue, which Landrieu called an unfair distortion. Landrieu’s media campaign didn’t let up. The fourth TV ad went after Kennedy’s support for President Bush’s plan to privatize a portion of Social Security. It introduced an unexpected issue and kept Landrieu on the offense, an important place for an incumbent to be. Subsequent Landrieu ads targeted Kennedy’s performance as treasurer, often using for documentation a publicized Republican opposition research report that was compiled against Kennedy when he was running as a Democrat for the Senate in 2004.

Looking for Coattails
Polls in Louisiana showed McCain far ahead of Obama. Though he had extraordinary appeal with the state’s sizable African-American electorate, Obama generally polled only about 20 to 22 percent of the white vote in the state.

Political pundits wondered about the impact of the presidential race on the Senate contest. Would it be a sharp two-edged sword? While Obama generated enormous turnout enthusiasm among black voters—a big help for Landrieu—what would be the effect of McCain’s massive lead among white voters?

Once Barack Obama locked up the Democratic nomination, Kennedy and his allies trained their guns on Landrieu’s support of her fellow Democrat’s presidential candidacy. Kennedy called GOP nominee John McCain “my kind of guy” and pushed to frame the race as McCain– Kennedy versus Obama–Landrieu.

While Republicans in other parts of the nation were running away from nationalizing the election and keeping their distance from both Bush and McCain, the situation was different in Louisiana. To win, Landrieu would need to hold her Democratic base plus get a big chunk of McCain voters. Helping that effort were the endorsements Landrieu won from local Republican officials. Former Republican governor Dave Treen endorsed her, as did numerous mayors, sheriffs, legislators and even Republican officials from Kennedy’s home parish of St. Tammany, a conservative GOP stronghold. This underscored Landrieu’s bipartisan message and strengthened her image as an effective legislator with important seniority.

On Oct. 15, word spread that the National Republican Senatorial Committee was canceling its TV buy in Louisiana, a signal they were giving up on Kennedy’s chances. But only days later, the NRSC reversed course and said it would stay in the %uFB01ght. It was an odd turn of events. A week before the election, Kennedy’s campaign shot its silver bullet: a TV ad endorsement from Jindal. They also stepped up their broadcast and mail attacks.

Closing the Deal
Throughout October, reported polls placed Landrieu in the lead. Mellman’s polling showed Landrieu’s margin consistently in healthy double digits, and her share of the vote ranging between 48 and 54 percent. However, an OnMessage Inc. survey for Kennedy released Oct. 30, just days before the election, reported a virtual tie, with Landrieu only 1 point ahead.

On Election Night, Mary Landrieu won by 121,121 votes, nearly three times as large as her 2002 margin. She received 52.1 percent of the vote to Kennedy’s 45.7 per- cent. Other candidates captured 2.2 percent. Exit polling showed Landrieu received 96 percent of the African-American vote, which comprised 29 percent of the voting electorate. Kennedy carried 65 percent of whites. Landrieu won Independents, 51 percent to 45 percent. While Obama carried blacks overwhelmingly, he received only 14 percent of Louisiana’s white voters on Election Day, less than he had been polling.

In winning, Landrieu overcame a huge 19-point GOP presidential advantage. McCain carried Louisiana 59 per- cent to 40 percent, one of only four states where Republicans improved their margins over 2004. McCain received 281,098 more votes than did Kennedy. Obama won 205,309 fewer votes than did Landrieu. In one debate, Landrieu had chided her opponent’s attempt to tie his prospects to those of his party’s presidential nominee, by saying that McCain’s coattails weren’t long enough to pull in Kennedy, too.

The results proved Mary Landrieu right. The final vote demonstrated how important it was for the Landrieu campaign to define the race on its own terms early—a strategic advantage her challenger could never surmount. The outcome was testament to two realities that should guide future campaigns: First, an incumbent’s record of accomplishment matters. Second, campaign message discipline is essential.

Ron Faucheux is president of Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan polling and research %uFB01 rm based in Washington, D.C. He teaches at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute and the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. He served as general consultant in Sen. Mary Landrieu’s 2008 reelection campaign.