WASHINGTON -- The Louisiana Senate race has accelerated the schedule for a vote to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline -- a dormant project that has been a wedge issue between Republicans and Democrats for years. Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House are moving quickly to hold votes on their respective floors and give their candidate of choice the opportunity to go back to voters in Louisiana and say they got the project done.
The matchup between Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy is the final undecided Senate race in the country; a runoff will be held Dec. 6. Control of the Senate isn't on the line: The GOP already locked that up. But Landrieu is an endangered species -- she could be the last white Democrat from the Deep South in the Senate or House -- which could have large implications for her party moving forward.
On Wednesday, Landrieu took the Senate floor to move for unanimous consent to approve the Keystone pipeline. A vote has long been blocked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, with liberals arguing that approval will only further entrench the nation's dependence on fossil fuels and would slow efforts to address climate change. But fearing the loss of another Democratic seat, Reid appeared willing to let Landrieu, who has championed the oil and gas industry, guide the project to a vote. A bipartisan stream of members supported the measure.
“I think we can do that now, today or tomorrow, and that will send a strong signal that we heard the voters, we do understand this cry to break the gridlock, move the job forward, get things done,” Landrieu said on the floor.
It didn’t take long for House Republicans to indicate they would do the same. On the first day back from the election break, the House Rules Committee added a meeting for Wednesday afternoon to allow a vote in the lower chamber on Keystone. This means Cassidy, who is considered a front-runner against Landrieu, can take a near identical vote on the project.
Landrieu is in a fight for political survival. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled their help running ads in the state. Only 4 percent of the political ads being run are in support of Landrieu; 96 percent are backing her opponent Cassidy. The polls show Landrieu at a disadvantage going into the runoff. In head-to-head polls between Landrieu and Cassidy done the month before the Nov. 4 election, the Republican was leading by an average of about 5 points.
Louisiana uses an open election system, meaning anyone of any party can put their name on the ballot for Election Day. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote getters head to a runoff. In the last week, Cassidy picked up the endorsement of the other Republican who ran, Rob Maness, and Gov. Bobby Jindal.
In the lead-up to the election, there was speculation about whether Landrieu could get African-American voters to show up and support her. Landrieu needed to turn out black voters, particularly in New Orleans, to stand a chance of winning.
Landrieu made national headlines right before the election when she suggested President Barack Obama remained so unpopular in Louisiana because of the state’s history of racism. Republicans accused her of calling the voters of her state racist. The remarks could have both helped -- by driving black voter turnout -- and hurt, by costing her support among white voters.
African-Americans accounted for 30 percent of the electorate in the general election (they make up 32 percent of the state’s population), and 94 percent of them supported Landrieu. But Landrieu secured only 18 percent of the white vote.
“If she doesn't find a way to persuade more whites to support her, she can't win,” said Bob Mann, a political communication professor at Louisiana State University who previously worked for former Sen. John Breaux and Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
Mann said Landrieu needs to adapt her sales pitch, for example by talking about women’s issues and the economy, now that Republicans will control the Senate. She can no longer tout her role as the chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, since that job will go to a Republican.
“She must change her message,” Mann said. “She has to pivot away from talking about her clout and start talking about issues that people really care about. For one thing, her clout is largely gone.”
The race equation in the Deep South is troublesome for the Democrats. There are many black Democrats representing districts in the region, but the party's loss of white support shows how difficult it will be for the party to flip any Deep South states from red to blue, or even purple.
Political analysts have speculated that Georgia could move purple, but senate candidate Michelle Nunn lost to Republican David Perdue by nearly eight points.
Democrats are looking at a 2016 map that includes none of the South, a route that Obama was able to take in 2012, but that becomes increasingly difficult when other states like Colorado are in play.