ATLANTA (AP) — In the tempest over shutdown politics, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu stands out among Southern Democratic candidates with her embrace of the three-year-old health care law at the core of Capitol Hill dysfunction.
A third-term senator who faces a tough re-election fight next year, Landrieu called Republicans "reckless and irresponsible and radical" for using the federal budget and looming vote to raise the debt ceiling as leverage for demands to scrap President Barack Obama's signature law.
"I'm not willing to negotiate away the character of this law on the debt ceiling," Landrieu told The Associated Press recently. "I won't negotiate it away on the budget. I won't negotiate it away at all. Period."
Yet Landrieu's fellow Southern Democrats running in 2014 Senate races have taken a more cautious approach in the face of Republican pressure over the law they deride as "Obamacare."
Democratic leaders refused Republican demands to scrap the law in exchange for passing a federal budget and raising the nation's borrowing limit before Thursdays' deadline from the Treasury Department. Republicans are betting that Landrieu and some of her colleagues will be vulnerable next year because of their 2010 votes for Obama's health care law.
Two other Southern Democrats in the Senate, North Carolina's Kay Hagan and Arkansas' Mark Pryor, decry the impasse. But they don't talk about the fiscal fight and the health care law together. That's the same tack for Democratic Senate candidates Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Kentucky's Alison Lundergan Grimes, who wants to knock off Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell if he wins a contested primary.
In all five states, Obama and the health care law are generally unpopular among white, conservative voters who tend to dominate elections in non-presidential years, but popular among African-American voters who are necessary for any statewide victory for a Democrat in the South.
With those dynamics, plus polls that suggest Republicans are getting more blame for the shutdown, many Democratic aides endorse the less aggressive approach.
"You see a lot of Democrats just sitting back and letting Republicans keeping digging, and it's a smart strategy when they refuse to put the shovel down," said Democratic consultant and pollster John Anzalone, whose clients include Hagan.
On the Senate floor recently, Hagan lamented "that some in Congress are playing political games with the most basic function of keeping the government running." But she didn't name any person or party, focusing instead on shutdown effects for veterans, tourism and university research.
Pryor has called the House "drama city." He launched a campaign ad in Arkansas recently mentioning his likely Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, alongside the shutdown. It was a retort to a Cotton ad hammering Pryor as "the deciding vote on Obamacare." But Pryor's comeback didn't mention health care, and his critique of Cotton wasn't for his position on the budget or debt ceiling, but for missing key budget votes to attend a fundraiser for the 2014 Senate campaign.
In Georgia, Nunn, a first-time candidate whose father served nearly a quarter century in the Senate, uses the shutdown to bolster her campaign as a Washington outsider critical of both parties. In an op-ed published in Sam Nunn's hometown newspaper last Monday, the younger Nunn cast the situation as a "failure of leadership" and argued that "neither side has been serious about cutting government spending making the hard choices necessary to reduce our national debt."
Yet, like Hagan, she never mentioned Obama, the health care law or even her own political affiliation as a Democrat. Nunn is running for the seat that retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss now holds. Her campaign did not make Nunn available for an interview.
In Kentucky, Grimes also fits the shutdown and debt ceiling brinkmanship into her already established theme: that McConnell puts his leadership post above Kentucky. "There's no political gain or advantage to the government shutdown in contrast to what Senator McConnell might think," Grimes told AP last week. Yet asked whether her party should give any ground on health care, she basically repeated herself.
Anzalone said the different approaches reflect the circumstances of individual races.
Pryor can hit Cotton with potential GOP baggage, but Obama is extremely unpopular in Arkansas and Republicans have been ascendant since the senator's easy victory in 2008.
Hagan has her health care vote to defend, but can also sit back and watch a crowded Republican primary where every candidate has endorsed the GOP's shutdown strategy. Nunn and Grimes don't have to explain any votes in Washington, and they both have a contested primary on the other side.
Nuances aside, Anzalone said, each scenario justifies a Democrat running as a responsible problem solver trying to attract frustrated voters of all political and demographic identities.
Landrieu, meanwhile, has three previous victories that establish her reliance on core Democrats, and she's already running against a sitting Republican congressman, Rep. Bill Cassidy.
She pitches herself as a pragmatist who gets things done, yet embraces her roots as a part of a Democratic family dynasty in her state. That's never gotten her more than 52 percent of the vote, but she turns out wide margins among urban Democrats and African-Americans, while getting just enough white votes elsewhere.
She deflects questions about shutdown politics, instead rattling off a litany of bad Louisiana health statistics that she argues will improve under the new law. "This shouldn't be about Barack Obama; it should be about the infant mortality rate in Louisiana," Landrieu told AP. "People ask me how I could vote for this law. I ask them, 'How could I not?'"