© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Democratic Sen. Landrieu Walks A Fine Line In Red Louisiana

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., has won some conservative supporters in her state, but her support for Obamacare is putting her re-election at risk.
Evan Vucci

If Democrats are going to keep their majority in the Senate, they'll need to hang on to a few critical seats they hold in conservative states.

Mary Landrieu of Louisiana has one of those, and like some of her colleagues up for re-election, her support of the Affordable Care Act could be the mountain to overcome this fall.

The question for Landrieu is: Will Louisiana voters define her by Obamacare, or judge her on the entire record she's built over nearly two decades as a senator?

For Some, Obamacare's A Dealbreaker

There's a sprawling, twisty live oak in Galliano, La. It's right across the street from Bayou LaFourche in Lafourche Parish.

The Cajuns in the neighborhood call the old tree "Chene au Cowan," and nearly every day, from sun-up to sundown, a group of retired Cajun men sit on swings beneath the branches, talking about life and politics. They say they've been gathering there about 50 years.

One of the men sitting under the tree one particular afternoon is Beau Broussard. He's not Cajun, but they let him hang out here anyway. Broussard says for years, people running for political office have visited this oak tree.

"They don't run without coming here, because that's good luck, here," Broussard says.

Old campaign signs are still hanging all over the tree trunk. Broussard fondly remembers the last candidate who stopped by.

"He brought some white bean," he says. "They were delicious. Ooooo! I'd vote for him just for them white bean."

It will take a lot more than a pot of white beans to get Broussard to vote for one particular candidate this November: Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. The dealbreaker for him was when she voted for the Affordable Care Act.

Broussard has all kinds of problems with the law itself — that it's wrong to force people to buy insurance, that it will make businesses hire less. But there's something else that bothers him: The law is the signature achievement of a man Broussard never wanted to see become president.

"I don't vote for black people, lady," he says. "No, ma'am. I don't vote for black people. They got their place, I got my place. That's the way I was raised."

Broussard says Landrieu votes too much in line with the president's agenda -– he calls her "Obama Lady." But he insists that he might still have voted for her this November if she hadn't supported the Affordable Care Act, because he acknowledges Landrieu has helped the people of her state tremendously since she became a senator in 1997.

Can She Deliver For Louisiana?

A lot of voters agree Landrieu has done a lot for Louisiana, but she's associated with two things many people here resent: the health care law and the president behind it. So the challenge now for Landrieu is whether she can persuade those voters to forgive her, convincing them she'll deliver for her home state in other ways.

Harvey Robichaux, an oil worker, says he'll vote for Sen. Mary Landrieu because she has the influence to promote the oil and gas industry in Louisiana.
Ailsa Chang / NPR
Harvey Robichaux, an oil worker, says he'll vote for Sen. Mary Landrieu because she has the influence to promote the oil and gas industry in Louisiana.

One industry Landrieu's worked hard to win over is oil and gas. It's the largest industry in the state. Many oil workers who aren't fans of Obama or Obamacare say Landrieu's still got their vote, as long as she keeps helping their industry.

"If I like who's running, that's how I vote," says Chad Plaisance, who was having lunch in a restaurant at Port Fourchon, on the Gulf of Mexico, where Louisiana's offshore oil and gas industry is concentrated. "If they're gonna do something good for south Louisiana, the oil field and the shrimping industry, it don't matter what I'm registered as."

Plaisance, a diesel mechanic who services boats for the oil companies, says he's willing to overlook Obamacare, as much as he hates it, because of all the ways Landrieu has helped his industry. She's pushing to increase Louisiana's royalties from offshore oil revenues, and he remembers how fiercely she opposed the moratorium on offshore drilling right after the BP oil spill. He was really grateful for that.

"Yes ma'am, because we work on the supply boats," Plaisance says. "If the supply boats don't run, then we don't have a job. So it's kind of, oil field don't work, we don't work."

A Senator With Seniority

Landrieu also become chair of the Senate Energy Committee this month, a position that will give her even more influence over the industry. That's a detail Harvey Robichaux says will earn his vote. He services oil companies by laying foundations for the heavy equipment.

"She has done a lot of good and she has a lot of seniority," Robichaux says. "So I would be willing to vote Democrat because of that seniority. And I wouldn't want to give it up."

But that seniority will not prove as helpful with other Louisiana industries, like shrimping.

Up the road a bit is a marina in Leeville, where many shrimpers load up on ice before they head out into the Gulf.

Parish Williams is a fifth-generation shrimper. He says Sen. Mary Landrieu hasn't done enough to protect shrimpers from unfair competition.
Ailsa Chang / NPR
Parish Williams is a fifth-generation shrimper. He says Sen. Mary Landrieu hasn't done enough to protect shrimpers from unfair competition.

Parish Williams runs Chackbay Lady, a 62-foot shrimp boat. His family has been shrimping for five generations. He says they've seen the business go through some really tough times, and that Landrieu hasn't done enough to help them.

The stress really started to build in 2000, he says, when shrimp imports shot up.

"It drove the price of the shrimp down to hardly nothing, where we could barely make a living for quite awhile," Williams says. "This year's the first year we started to get a decent price."

Williams says that good fortune had nothing to do with Landrieu. A strain of bacteria ended up killing off loads of foreign shrimp, so his business rebounded. But once the bacteria problem's solved, he says shrimpers will suffer again.

Landrieu's office points out that she has protected shrimpers: She successfully pushed for import duties on shrimp coming from parts of Asia. But Williams says it didn't help much, and it certainly wasn't enough to make up for her support of Obamacare.

"I think she's been there too long," he says. "I think she's too comfortable. I think it's time for her to go."

Accused Of 'Crawfishing'

When Landrieu became one of the most vocal critics of the botched rollout of the health care law, Williams says he thought that Landrieu was just trying to save her political skin in true Louisiana form — "crawfishing," he calls it.

"It means backing up. It's what it means — backing up," Williams.

This far from Election Day, it's not clear how much backing up Landrieu can do, or even needs to do. She's already a three-term senator from a prominent political family. Obamacare came along just four years ago. Mary Landrieu's political history with the state goes back nearly nine times as far.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.