Down in the polls and with no easy path to victory in sight, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu looked to land a haymaker Monday in a debate against Rep. Bill Cassidy, demanding that her Republican challenger come clean about whether he billed the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center for a no-show job.
Mrs. Landrieu, a Democrat, repeatedly charged that Mr. Cassidy was paid for work he never did, and accused him of lying about related records.
“Congressman Cassidy has padded his own payroll for the last six years entering into an agreement with one of our hospitals and there is absolutely no record of the work that he has done,” Mrs. Landrieu said just minutes into the debate.
“I don’t believe he will be elected, but if he is, he will be doing a lot more than fighting President Obama, he will be fighting subpoenas because he padded his payroll,” she said later on in the debate.
“He took money without accounting for it,” Mrs. Landrieu said. “This is a real serious issue, and he will just talk about everyone else’s record but his own.”
LSU spokesman Ernie Ballard told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday night that the university will investigate the payments made to Mr. Cassidy.
Mr. Cassidy, meanwhile, countered in the debate that the “charges are absolutely false.”
“I am proud of the work I have done at LSU,” he said, before reminding the audience that Mrs. Landrieu took private jets to campaign events and fundraisers on the taxpayer dime.
Mrs. Landrieu said that it was a bookkeeping error and that the money has been reimbursed. She held up a piece of paper and said she brought the records to prove it.
The attack from Mrs. Landrieu, who is seeking a fourth term, could be too little, too late. National Democrats have all but abandoned her, and her prospects took a blow last month after she failed to muster enough support in the Senate to pass a measure to approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
“I hate to put it this way because a lot of those people are friends, but I don’t know anybody outside of the Landrieu campaign that thinks they have a chance of winning,” said Robert Mann, political science professor at Louisiana State University. “I have not seen anybody sketch out to me a credible path to victory for her that doesn’t involve Cassidy being struck by lightning.”
The showdown Monday was the only debate of the runoff race, which was set into motion last month after none of the candidates won more than 50 percent of the vote — the threshold needed under Louisiana law to win the seat outright.
Mrs. Landrieu finished first with 42 percent of the vote, followed by Mr. Cassidy with 41 percent of the vote, and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness with nearly 14 percent of the vote.
Since then, the GOP has coalesced around Mr. Cassidy. Mr. Maness endorsed him, as have some favorites of grass-roots conservatives, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson, and some more establishment types, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a possible 2016 presidential contender.
“The choice for voters in clear: Mary Landrieu, a faithful rubber stamp vote for Barack Obama, or Bill Cassidy, a proven conservative with a record of service for Louisiana,” Mr. Bush said in a fundraising email that went out before the debate.
Mr. Cassidy espoused a similar message in the hourlong debate Monday at WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge, saying “she supports the president 97 percent of the time.”
Mr. Cassidy also said that he is pro-life and said Mrs. Landrieu is pro-choice. He pointed out that he opposed Obamacare, and wants to repeal it.
For her part, Mrs. Landrieu said she opposes abortion but said the decision should be left to the mother, the father and a priest — not the government.
She also said she wants to fix Obamacare and went after Mr. Cassidy by saying he wants to raise the eligibility age of Social Security to 70. She pledged not to do the same.
Before the debate, political analysts said that Mrs. Landrieu has the narrowest of paths to victory, which hinges on driving up black voter turnout while simultaneously making significant inroads with white voters.
“There is no evidence that they are going to be able to do that,” Mr. Mann said
Meanwhile, the latest polls all show Mr. Cassidy up by double-digits.
Nathan Gonzales, of the Rothenberg Political Report, said that Mrs. Landrieu is “an underdog for re-election.”
“Landrieu has to hope that Republicans take the race for granted, but there is no real evidence that that is happening,” Mr. Gonzales said.
Geoffrey Skelley, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said, “The state of the Louisiana race is pretty straight-forward: It’ll be very surprising if Bill Cassidy loses.”
“Moreover, early voting data points contain only bad news for the incumbent, as registered Republicans voted early at an even higher number than before Nov. 4 while Democrats saw a substantial drop off,” Mr. Skelley said.