It’s been 18 years since Louisiana saw one of its own lead the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, arguably the most important congressional panel to the energy-rich state.
Now, with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., announcing last week he is retiring after this session of Congress, Louisianans have another chance to lead Energy and Natural Resources with their Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who faces a tough reelection in a red state that voted 58 percent in favor of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
Landrieu is the third-most-senior Democrat on the Energy panel, after current Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon and Tim Johnson of South Dakota. But Johnson has already announced he is retiring after this Congress, and Wyden also happens to be the second-most-senior Democrat on the Finance Committee, considered one of the most powerful—and therefore coveted—panels in Congress. In the wake of this domino effect prompted by Baucus’s retirement announcement, Landrieu coould become the top Democrat on the Energy committee.
“I thought she was in good shape politically before the Baucus retirement,” said former Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La., who chaired the Energy panel from 1987 to 1995. “But I think since the Baucus retirement, it pretty much seals the deal. Louisianans understand how important the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is to the state.”
That’s a confident take on an outcome dependent on several big open questions. Will Democrats keep control of the Senate? Will the current chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee choose to take the Finance Committee gavel in 2014, as conventional wisdom suggests? Will chairing a congressional committee make a big difference in a political campaign, because voters could well care less about such inside-baseball issues and more about the economy generally? Will Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., try to maneuver around Landrieu—whose views on energy are more conservative than those of almost every other Democrat in the Senate—to ensure a more moderate Democrat gets the committee’s top spot?
With fewer than 200 days to go until Election Day 2013, it’s not too early to start speculating, but it is too early to confidently know the answers to any of these questions.
For her part, Landrieu is already articulating one of her key reelection platforms, and it’s intricately tied to her leadership on the Energy committee.
“Without sounding braggadocious, I’m indispensable in this effort to secure for Louisiana a significant and reliable string of revenue to save our coast,” Landrieu said in an interview with The Times-Picayune about a week before Baucus announced his plans to retire.
Landrieu is implicitly referring to legislation she is sponsoring, along with Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, which would immediately direct to coastal states more than a third of the money companies drilling for oil and natural gas offshore pay to the federal government. Current law will direct this money to coastal states beginning in 2017. Landrieu says the additional money would be instrumental in restoring and maintaining Louisiana’s coastlines. Wyden has expressed an interest in pursuing her legislation this Congress, but it’s unlikely it will become law before Election Day 2013.
“She will be working to convince the people of Louisiana they have more to gain by having a moderate voice in Washington who has great seniority at this point than they do to elect a new senator and start all over again,” said Gordon Taylor, a principal at lobbying firm Ogilvy Government Relations who has worked in the Louisiana delegation for 12 years and knows Landrieu well.
Since her first election in 1996, Landrieu has never won more than 52 percent of the vote. And over the past 17 years, the state has become more Republican. Of the eight elected federal public offices in the state, six are held by Republicans, including Landrieu’s fellow senator, David Vitter, and the governor, Bobby Jindal. Most polling shows Landrieu slightly ahead of any of her potential challengers, including current Louisiana Republican Reps. Bill Cassidy and John Fleming and former Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report predicts it will be “one of the more competitive contests of the cycle.” She also has more cash on hand than any of her challengers, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
The political dynamics of Landrieu’s reelection campaign could well rest on issues other than energy, despite the state’s dependence on the industry. Her recent vote in support of expanding background checks for guns, for example, could turn off voters in the deep-red northern part of the state. The prospect of becoming chair of the Energy committee could help more in her pocketbook than in voting booths.
“I’m sure it’ll help her raise money," said John Maginnis, a Louisiana strategist who writes a weekly political newsletter. "But I don’t know if it’s going to change the real composition of the race.”
TOMORROW: A look at the dynamics Landrieu must address if she does become the top Democrat on the Energy committee.