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Mary Landrieu faces grim odds in Saturday's Senate runoff

Mary Landrieu is on the ropes in her runoff Saturday against Republican Bill Cassidy.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) speaks with the media after voting on Nov. 4, 2014 in New Orleans, La. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty)
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) speaks with the media after voting on Nov. 4, 2014 in New Orleans, La.

Sen. Mary Landrieu will face Republican challenger Rep. Bill Cassidy on Saturday in Louisiana’s Senate runoff election, giving the GOP an opportunity to pad their incoming majority by taking out yet another Southern Democrat. A victory would give the GOP 54 seats next year. 

Landrieu has survived two tough races before, but her odds of a third victory are grim. Election analyst Kyle Kondik at Sabato’s Crystal Ball recently rated the race as “safe Republican” a rare label for a multi-term incumbent, especially one without any obvious personal scandal attached to her. FiveThirtyEight gives Landrieu a 0.2% chance of winning based on their election model. Most recent polls come from Republican groups, but both they and independent firms have given Cassidy a solid double-digit lead.

National Democrats, anticipating a rout, have pulled advertising dollars from the race, leaving Cassidy with a huge spending advantage among outside groups. 

The reason Landrieu is struggling is the same reason most Democratic candidates lost on Nov. 4: The president’s approval ratings are low, they’re even lower in red states like Louisiana, and they’re even lower among Southern white voters who once favored Democrats but have been trending towards the GOP for decades. If she loses, Democrats will no longer hold a single Senate seat in the Deep South.

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Cassidy’s most powerful argument against Landrieu has thus been pretty straightforward: She’s a Democrat. Barack Obama and Harry Reid are Democrats. What more do you need to know?

“I represent Louisiana. She represents Barack Obama,” Cassidy, who is so confident that he didn’t even campaign full time in Louisiana this week, told Politico on Thursday. “The polls indicate that people understand that, and so, when you represent the people, you get the people to vote.” 

Democrats running for statewide office in Louisiana win their elections by following what local politicos call the “30-30 rule.” That means they need African American-turnout, which skews overwhelmingly Democrat, to reach 30% of the total electorate, while winning 30% of the white vote in order to make the numbers add up.

In keeping with the formula, Landrieu has been trying desperately to fire up African-American voters who turned out for Obama in the final stretch. In one recent appearance, she accused Cassidy of “showing such disrespect to our president.” She also told NBC News’ Chuck Todd that Obama is unpopular in her state partly because “the South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans.” Recently she has run ads warning that Republicans will impeach the president if Cassidy wins. 

Embracing the president, however, means risking a backlash from white voters upset with the White House who she also needs to put her over the top. That “friendliest place” line, for example, set off a firestorm of criticism from Republicans led by Gov. Bobby Jindal, who called it “remarkably divisive.”

Landrieu has countered that she would use her senior position in the Senate to challenge the president on energy issues. After blocking a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline for years, Landrieu claimed credit for pressuring Harry Reid to bring it up last month in what appeared to be an effort to boost her election hopes. The bill failed by one vote, however, as Landrieu couldn’t rally the support she needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

She has also gone on offense, citing reports questioning whether her opponent accepted payments for tasks he didn’t complete at Louisiana State University, an accusation Cassidy denies.

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The Senator was able to make the "30-30" numbers work in 2008, but the intervening years have seen a collapse not just in Obama’s standing and her own, but Democrats as a whole, across the Deep South. In addition to high-profile Senate and House losses, Republicans have taken over almost every state legislature and governor’s mansion in the region as white voters who previously split their ticket between Republican presidential candidates and Democratic state officials turned fully red. Landrieu can at least take pride in outrunning the GOP tide longer than almost everyone else.

“I think she’s the last to turn out the lights,” G. Pearson Cross, a professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, told msnbc. “For the foreseeable future, Democratic candidates are going to have a very hard time winning statewide office.”