NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - As U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu addressed students at a New Orleans university destroyed by Hurricane Katrina nine years ago telling of her struggles to fund its restoration, she could as easily have been describing her fight this year to get re-elected.
In a race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate, Landrieu, a Democrat in a solidly red state that has grown more conservative in her 18 years on the job, is bucking strong headwinds.
“This is not my first rodeo,” Landrieu told Reuters last week after addressing a crowd, most of whom were in primary school when she helped secure a $160 million loan to rebuild historically black Dillard University in New Orleans, instead of relocating it to Atlanta.
“While the forces against us are pretty strong, I think the record of my service and the coalition we’ve put together is stronger,” she said.
But analysts see no easy path to victory - in either a November open primary or a likely December runoff.
Six years ago, Landrieu won re-election with 52 percent of the vote - the high-water mark of her first three Senate races, and the only time she avoided a runoff. Her challenges in repeating that feat are three-fold, analysts say.
The unusually high turnout of African-American voters in the 2008 presidential election, buoyed by then-candidate Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, and key to Landrieu for the 90-plus percent of black voters who back her, is unlikely to be replicated in 2014.
Hurricane Katrina, which demonstrated Landrieu’s ability to steer large recovery funds to her state, is for many a receding memory.
Among potential swing voters, she is weighed down by her association-by-party with President Obama, who is deeply unpopular among independent and Republican whites in the state, said Kurt Corbello, associate professor of political science at Southeastern Louisiana University and a longtime student of the state’s politics.
Landrieu confronts these obstacles with a message built around her clout and a robust fundraising apparatus that in the current cycle has taken in over $14 million, more than $5 million in excess of her main Republican challenger, U.S. Representative Bill Cassidy.
To woo moderates, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has staked out positions - from supporting the Keystone XL oil pipeline to favoring continued tax breaks for oil drilling - that have also won over some in the state’s fossil fuel industry.
But the 2008 “Katrina bump” she enjoyed among whites in greater New Orleans will be difficult to replicate, said John Couvillon, a Louisiana pollster who works mostly for Republican candidates.
Moreover, he added, blacks made up an estimated 30 percent of Louisiana’s electorate that year, a figure likely to be closer to 25-27 percent in 2014.
“In the absence of higher black turnout and Katrina, she would have gotten 49 percent,” he said, referring to 2008. “This occurred before she had to carry water for an unpopular Democratic president.”
Indeed, in a state Mitt Romney won by more than 17 percent in 2012, with overwhelming support from whites, Cassidy and his backers have persistently linked Landrieu to Obama and, in particular, to her support of the Affordable Care Act.
“We’re merely pointing out that her record is in lock step with the president’s agenda,” said Cassidy campaign spokesman John Cummins, noting the steady, if slim, lead his candidate has enjoyed in polls.
If, as expected, no candidate secures a majority in the Nov. 4 primary, the top-two finishers, likely Landrieu and Cassidy, will compete in a runoff on Dec. 6.
Both sides have set aside funds for the runoff, which, if Republicans in November pick up five of the six seats they need to gain Senate control, would likely prove decisive, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report.
“Whatever this race looks like on Nov. 3, it’s going to look a lot different on Nov. 5. It’s like hitting the reset button,” she said.
But the hurdles in Landrieu’s path appear unlikely to shrink after the primary, Couvillon said.“I never count her out because she’s a fighter,” he said. “But the winds are blowing against her more strongly than in the 2002 and 2008 elections.”
Additional reporting by Alistair Bell in Washington; Editing by Gunna Dickson