Reversal of Fortune

"My feet are tired, but my soul is inspired," a buoyant Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) proclaimed at her victory party last Saturday night, citing a variation of an old civil-rights saying.

It was a fitting tribute to the state's African-American community, whose members defied projections and turned out in droves last week, socking in the stomach a cocky GOP that had reportedly referred to Louisiana's Senate runoff as "Operation: Icing on the Cake."

Indeed, just one month ago, Landrieu had looked poised to lose the election after slogging through an unimpressive primary showing. But her shift in strategy during the last few weeks succeeded in bringing her base to the polls the second time around -- and contains some worthwhile lessons for Democrats looking to rebound from November's debacle.

In Saturday's runoff against Republican Elections Commissioner Suzanne Terrell, turnout in New Orleans -- where a large number of Louisiana's black, and largely Democratic, voters reside -- increased by 4 percentage points even as overall statewide turnout decreased by the same margin.

Winning Orleans Parish by a 4-to-1 ratio, Landrieu carried the day with 52 percent of the vote to Terrell's 48 percent. With a decisive 40,000-vote victory, she topped her 1996 performance, when she squeaked by Republican Woody Jenkins by a margin of less than 6,000 votes.

Susan Howell, a professor at the University of New Orleans, credited the city in which she teaches and its large African-American community for Landrieu's victory. "If you take out Orleans Parish," she said, "Terrell would have been elected."

While warm on Saturday, relations between Landrieu and the African-American community have not always been so rosy. For the better part of Landrieu's campaign, African Americans, who account for nearly one-third of the state's registered voters, voiced only lukewarm support for -- and at times resentment toward -- the centrist Landrieu. As a result, not enough braved the inclement weather on Nov. 5 to cast their ballots for Landrieu and ensure her victory.

She earned an underwhelming 46 percent of the vote, the same percentage that brought down incumbent Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) and three points less than the percentage Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) captured in her failed bid for a full term. Consequently, she was forced into a Dec. 7 runoff against Terrell, until then a relatively unknown, second-tier official who, with 27 percent of the vote, placed a distant second in the primary but threatened to be a powerful force in the runoff.

Meanwhile, the eight Republican candidates in the race won a combined total of 51 percent -- a number that sent shivers down the spines of Democrats who feared that Landrieu might very well be the next Democratic domino to fall under the wave that swept Republicans to solid majorities in the House and Senate last month. Moreover, it appeared ever more likely that Landrieu would become the first sitting incumbent senator from Louisiana to lose an election in 70 years, and that she would help send the state's first Republican senator to Washington since Reconstruction.

During Landrieu's primary campaign, the black community had every right to be angry. The eldest daughter of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu and a longtime advocate for African Americans, Landrieu had wasted the better part of her campaign cozying up to the Bush administration under the delusion that the Republican president's popularity would rub off on her rather than on her Republican opponents.

She ran around the state calling herself a conservative -- even though she has earned an 80 percent approval rating from Americans for Democratic Action -- and bragging that she votes with Bush three-fourths of the time.

But her strident appeals to middle-of-the-road voters rested on what turned out to be a flawed assumption: that the liberal base of her party -- a combination of African Americans, blue-collar workers and farmers -- would support her at the polls even if she ignored them on the campaign trail.

As a result, former Rep. Cleo Fields (D-La.), an African American and Landrieu's longtime political rival, threatened to run against her in the primary to force her to pay heed to her most loyal constituency. He ultimately opted not to run but, at the time, refused to support her candidacy

To add insult to injury, two African-American state legislators declined to endorse Landrieu, saying she had not reached out to them since 1996, when she needed their support in her first bid for the Senate.

But unlike many of her Democratic colleagues nationwide, who also made the mistake of hedging their criticism of a popular president, Landrieu -- thanks to Louisiana's unusual election laws, which require a run-off if no candidate wins a first-round majority -- got a second chance to get it right.

Amid a chorus of criticism faulting the Democratic Party for wishy-washy stances on domestic and foreign-policy issues that ultimately led to the loss of control of the Senate, Landrieu, it seems, listened and learned.

She hit the breaks on her campaign. She fired her campaign manager, her field director and her paid media-consulting firm. And then she made the political equivalent of a U-turn and headed for her ideological home.

Landrieu quickly announced her independence from, rather than her proximity to, Bush -- a daring stance in a GOP-trending state that supported Bush by an 8-point margin in the 2000 presidential elections. And branding her opponent "a rubber stamp" for the administration, she contended that Louisiana needed not one but two Democratic senators to protect the state from the GOP's harmful economic policies.

Landrieu advocated a payroll tax cut instead of campaigning on the Bush tax plan (which she had voted for in 2001). And, in the final days of the campaign, she assailed the administration for negotiating a secret deal with Mexico to increase sugar imports, which would allow cheap Mexican sugar into the country at a time when Louisiana's cane farmers had been reeling from the devastating effects of Hurricane Lili.

The administration denied the story, which appeared in a Mexican newspaper, but the issue crystallized into metaphor, as one Landrieu aide said, for Landrieu's independence.

Landrieu also shifted her vote-seeking focus from independents to her loyal liberal constituents -- in hindsight, an obvious move in a southern state that is poorer and more diverse than most of its neighbors and in a runoff that was expected to draw out more partisans than independents.

And with the help of Bill Clinton, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, she made amends with Fields, who, two days before the election, recorded phone messages and radio ads urging voters to support Landrieu.

Meanwhile, while Terrell was campaigning with GOP luminaries including both the current president and his father, Vice President Dick Cheney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Landrieu spent the precious few days of the runoff campaign courting her base.

She wooed supporters at the Bayou Classic -- a celebrated football game between two of the state's largest African-American universities -- and attended Baptist churches on the weekend before the election. She served red beans and rice to unemployed dockworkers on the wharves. And she brought in a host of black members of Congress, including Louisiana's Rep. William Jefferson, to energize the African-American community.

"She felt that the benefits of energizing her base outweighed the risks," said Louisiana political analyst Jeff Crouere. "In many elections, black turnout is significantly below white turnout, and that allows the Republicans to win. But this time, black and white voter turnout was closer, and the Democrat won."

As she declared in her victory speech, Landrieu was tired and inspired. She had a right to be. And so did her party, still in mourning over the loss of its Senate majority but cheered by a victory that could be used as a model for future elections.

On the Monday following the election, a self-assured Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) -- recently kicked out of his post as minority leader -- declared that her victory "proves the Democrats are alive and well." Or at least it proves that they're learning from their mistakes.

Allison Stevens is political editor of The Hill.