Louisiana 2014 - Racial Politics & Family Ties

December 7, 2014
Senator Samuel Douglas McEnery

Samuel Douglas McEnery was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Louisiana, serving from 1897 until his death in 1910. 

Credit: www.loc.gov

            In a competitive state that is increasingly Republican, Mary Landrieu (D-LA)  lost a tough re-election battle for her Senate seat and observers might want to reflect back on the career of one of her predecessors, Samuel Douglas McEnery for some perspective on the role of racial and pork barrel politics in  Louisiana.  Louisiana has a runoff system, whereby all candidates run together in a single election on election day in November, and if no one gets 50% or more, then the top two vote getters proceed to a subsequent election in December to decide the winner.  After the general election where no one received more than 50% of the vote, Landrieu faced Bill Cassidy, a Republican Congressman in a runoff. Yet even with the odds not slated in her favor, Landrieu fought tenaciously for  her seat using the past experience of winning two very tough previous re-election campaigns. Her ability to survive and keep her seat as a Democrat in a historically conservative state for as long as she did speaks to her abilities as a politician. This brief case study, written with the help of research assistants, Nhat-Dang Do and Jenna Ray, assesses Landrieu’s career and her rise to the Senate and draws parallels to one of her long ago predecessors Samuel McEnery who won election in a turbulent political climate back when U.S. senators were chosen indirectly in state legislatures.

            Landrieu started her political career at the age of 23, in the Louisiana state legislature. Coming from a family of prominent public servants, it was not altogether surprising to see Landrieu start her career at a young age. Her father served as mayor of New Orleans and later served in Jimmy Carter’s administration and her brother Mitch just won reelection to his second term as Mayor of New Orleans.[2] Her family’s connection to the Democratic Party no doubt helped her establish within Louisiana’s political establishment. After eight years as a state senator, Landrieu transitioned to a new position as the state treasurer in 1988.[3] In this position Landrieu was able to build her political credentials as a strong administrator and an expert in economics and finance. In 1995 Landrieu tested her abilities as a politician by running as the Democratic candidate for governor of Louisiana. She narrowly lost her berth to Cleo Fields, losing with 18.43% of the vote to Field’s 19.03%.[4] Undaunted with the loss, Landrieu moved on to run for U.S. senator the following year, taking advantage of a vacated seat in the Senate. She won the close race in a runoff election defeating the Republican candidate.[5]

            As the incumbent senator, Landrieu worked to establish herself as a responsive advocate for her state by catering her efforts towards serving her constituents.  Her press page is full of announcements of federal grants for her home state, from the thousands to millions of dollars.[6] Her position as the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Homeland Security, the committee responsible for approving over $300 billion in federal spending, allowed her to work towards diverting resources towards Louisiana.[7] Notably, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina Landrieu was influential in bringing in billions of dollars for rebuilding Louisiana. The massive influx of federal money, around $120 billion, has done much to start rebuilding projects. Landrieu’s efforts to bring back funding or “pork” to her state created a clear record of her actions on behalf of the state.  

            Similar to other successful career politicians, Landrieu also had a network of support within her party and from special interest groups. From her voting record in Congress, one can see that Landrieu was a loyal Democrat. In the 112th Congress Landrieu voted the party line 92% of the time.[8] Although she was pegged as a moderate to conservative Democrat, Landrieu stood up many times for the party line. She was very vocal towards polarizing issues such as Obamacare and abortion, which did not help her position in a conservative state but won her support from her party, until this last runoff round in her reelection. Her position within the party has allowed her access to financial support from a variety of Democratic fundraisers. Between 2009-2014, Landrieu is calculated to have raised almost $13.5 million. Her war chest was deep. Of the total amount, 66% came from individual contributors with 61% of that total coming from large individual contributions. The rest of her war chest came from party PAC’s. Not surprisingly, her top five contributors were all oil or energy companies.[9]  The state of Louisiana is an oil and natural gas producing state and this year Landrieu assumed the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over energy policy. Landrieu consistently pushed for bills that expand oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico and her position on that committee gave her a vocal platform to champion that issue.

            Overall, Mary Landrieu’s career can be described as a combination of establishing strong legislative credentials, building political networks, and being attentive to the state’s constituency. Her ability to take advantage of opportunities, like running for an open seat or using natural disasters to gain more state funding, enabled her to build a political career in a difficult and competitive state. Her ability to balance the party line while at the same time stay responsive to the needs of constituencies and special interests no doubt helped her hold the seat in the past when ideological winds blew against her. Mary Landrieu shared all the characteristics of a successful U.S. senator: entrepreneurship, responsiveness to the needs of the state, and the ability to court and maintain networks of political support.  This time, however, those assets were not enough to withstand the increasingly strong turn toward the GOP in Louisiana. 


The rough and tumble of Louisiana politics is nothing new.  In the age of indirect elections, from 1789 to 1913 when U.S. senators were elected in state legislatures, candidates and incumbents also had to devise winning strategies using other political office as stepping stones and forge home grown support networks.  Senator Samuel D. McEnery served as a Democrat from Louisiana in the U.S. Senate from 1897 to 1910.  He was a lawyer and served in the Confederate Army; at the conclusion of the war, McEnery returned to his legal practice.[10]

            But just as in the case of Landrieu, McEnery’s family ties drew him into the world of politics.  In 1872,when Louisiana was still governed under Reconstruction, Samuel McEnery’s brother, John McEnery, ran for Governor of Louisiana against a Republican, William Kellogg.  Amid charges of voter fraud, and rallying cries against the policy of federal (and Republican) dominance under Reconstruction, both candidates claimed victory, and the election was brought before Congress and the president. Ultimately Kellogg was declared the winner and the legally recognized governor of Louisiana.[11] The decade of the 1870s was a particularly violent one in Louisiana with the rise of white supremacist organizations and rampages of murder against African-Americans, some of whom were working with the Republican Party.  After one notorious swath of violence during elections in 1876, prominent politicians from Louisiana were called to Congress to testify alongside the surviving victims of the rampage. Samuel McEnery was one of those called to testify and he denied any wrongdoing.[12]

            The racial and political tensions in Louisiana produced highly conflictual elections for most of the decade of the 1870s.  But Samuel McEnery took advantage of both regional factions and white racism to turn it into a political career boost.  In 1879, he was appointed lieutenant governor of Louisiana, simply because his work in the white supremacist movement made him likable by all of the party factions. In fact, he was nominated by his faction’s opposition.[13]  He served as lieutenant governor until 1881, when the death of Governor Louis Wiltz propelled him to the governor’s office. As governor, McEnery’s first action was to move the state capital from New Orleans back to the pre-war capital of Baton Rouge.[14] This move highlights McEnery’s commitment to turning back time to the pre-civil war Louisiana, a message that appealed to the majority of white Democrats.  In 1884, he was elected Governor, and used his term to complete public works projects, such as rebuilding levees, and mandating school attendance. In 1888, he lost his reelection campaign for governor, and was appointed as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Louisiana.[15]

            McEnery reentered electoral politics in 1896 when he took advantage of discord within the Democratic Party over who to elect to the U.S. Senate.  Once again, he used this turmoil to his political advantage, as he became the candidate for U.S. senator that all factions could agree on. McEnery used his position to his advantage, making his one condition that he would vote as he saw fit, which was not always be along his party’s lines.[16]           

            As with his modern counterpart Landrieu, McEnery focused on public works projects for Louisiana and tariff bills during his first term.[17]  He is remembered as being exceptionally loyal to his white constituency, sometimes placing their needs above all else.  However, he was only present for 57% of roll-call votes during his tenure in the Senate, which contradicts his seemingly exceptional work.[18]

            McEnery won reelection to a second term in the Senate beginning in 1903, and continued to work on substantive legislation.  However, as his term in Congress proceeded, his congressional work became more focused on individual constituency service, introducing relief and pension bills. While this was beneficial to members of his constituency, it is inconsistent with his initial activity which focused more on funding larger scale projects.  He was unanimously reelected in for a third term beginning in 1909, and he was the lone Democrat to vote for the Payne-Aldrich Tariff bill, sticking to his promise of voting for his personal and state interests, and not necessarily those of the party.[19]  During that debate, McEnery was defiant in his defense of tariffs on both raw and refined sugar to protect the sugar industry in his home state:  “I do not base my plea for a duty on sugar for the great revenue it brings.  I put it on a higher plane, which is the necessity for the country to become independent of any foreign Government for things it requires.  Break down the tariff on sugar and this country will be overrun with sugar from Europe, both refined and granulated and it will stop every beet sugar factory in the United States and stop the culture of cane in the State of Louisiana.” [20]  Fast forward to 2014 and we see Mary Landrieu running campaign ads that essentially send the same message about protecting the domestic the oil and natural gas industry; then as now U.S. senators from Louisiana rise and fall on their perceived attentiveness to key state industries. [21] Senator McEnery did not live out to serve a full third term; he died in New Orleans in 1910 and was succeeded by Judge John Thornton.[22]

            Despite being separated by more than 100 years, as well as gender, Senators Mary Landrieu and Samuel McEnery share important common aspects to their political careers and specifically, their Senate careers.  Both came from political families that have served as a foundation for their jumpstart in Louisiana politics.  McEnery arose in a time of great political and racial turmoil and took advantage of white supremacy movement to win election as governor and then U.S. senator.  Although McEnery maintained his racist views throughout his career, and took advantage of divisions within his own Democratic Party to get to the Senate, once there he turned his attention to the more tangible elements of representation including securing federal money for his state, addressing individual constituent needs, and protecting the sugar industry which was then one of Louisiana’s most important economic drivers.  Mary Landrieu rose up in Louisiana politics in a very different racial and political climate, but nonetheless used similar stepping stones in terms of family and a focus on Louisiana based interests.  Just as McEnery pledged allegiance to protecting raw sugar, she pledged her allegiance in the oil and natural gas industry and each of them emphasized the importance of these industries to national interests in their advocacy efforts.  On a retail politics level, McEnery had to court the support of local party leaders and state legislators to get elected and Landrieu did much the same in her ultimately failed efforts to save her seat. [23] Modern technology makes it easier for voters to discover who supports particular Senate candidates but the fact remains that in both the indirect and direct election systems, such support is viewed as crucial to victory.  And Louisiana’s runoff requirement of 50% or higher to win the Senate seat is similar to the requirement that Senate candidates win a majority of the state legislative vote under indirect elections; in other states, senators can win just a plurality of the vote and still win the Senate seat.

            Perhaps the biggest surprise to Samuel McEnery if he were observing Louisiana politics today would be the shift in political control to the Republican Party.  With a Republican governor, and a Republican legislature (59R, 44D, 2I House, and (25R, 14D Senate), he would have had no chance at winning as a Democrat under indirect elections.  However, many of the policies he supported, from conservative government to racial issues, would be more welcomed in the Republican Party in his home state today than in the Democratic Party. To some extent, Mary Landrieu still faced the same kinds of deep conflicts surrounding these issues today in her state’s antipathy towards President Obama which emerged as a significant liability for her in 2014.   Her path to victory, in many ways similar to McEnery’s with the important exception that women can vote today, still rested with an appeal to the rank and file voters of Louisiana based on a well-known family name, constituent service and attention to the economic interests of the state.  Despite her defeat, the campaign showed that at least in Louisiana, the contest for the U.S. Senate has not changed all that much in 100+ years.  

[1] “Louisiana Senate – Cassidy vs. Landrieu:  Realclearpolitics.com, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2014/senate/la/louisiana_senate_cassidy_vs_landrieu-3670.html, September 12, 2014.

[10]”McEnery, Samuel Douglas”. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=M000429.

[11] “The Louisiana Question – Debate in the Senate yesterday – McEneryites demoralized.” The New York Times, February 28, 1873.

[12] “Louisiana Investigations – the chairman of the state Democratic committee still before the Senate committee – purpose of the rifle clubs as represented by McEnery and carried out upon the colored men.” The New York Times, December 28, 1876.

[13]  Samuel D. McEnery (Late a Senator from Louisiana): Memorial Addresses Delivered in the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States. Compiled under the direction of the Joint Committee on Printing. 1911. 17-18.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “McEnery, Samuel Douglas.” Biographical Directory.

[16] Samuel D. McEnery (Late a Senator from Louisiana). 12.

[17] Congressional Record, Indexes, 57-61 Congresses.

[19] Senator D. McEnery (Late a Senator from Louisiana) 20.

[20] “Wants Sugar Protected: Senator McEnery Says Removal of Duty will Ruin the Industry Here.” The New York Times, May 27, 1909.

[22] “Senator M’Enery(sic) Dies in New Orleans.” The New York Times June 29, 1910.

[23] For an example of local legislator support see “I’m with Mary – Patricia Haynes Smith”