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Senate Control Could Ride On The South's Tight Races


Some of the most hotly contested Senate races today are in the South. Control of the U.S. Senate could hinge on the outcome of key races in Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina. NPR's Debbie Elliott is in Louisiana where she's been following Democrat Mary Landrieu's tough fight to win a fourth term. Good morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And where are you exactly?

ELLIOTT: I am in New Orleans, in the Mid-City neighborhood. I'm at a high school that's a polling place today for several precincts and a couple of different of the wards in the city - it's Warren Easton High School. There's been a pretty steady turnout here so far, and this is very much Mary Landrieu's home turf. You know, her father, Moon, was the mayor here in the 1970s. Her brother Mitch Landrieu is now in his second term in that job, and so she's got a lot of support here, and that's what I'm hearing from voters. One of the first people I ran into here this morning was a woman by the name of Norma Davis. She's a security guard at the airport, and she was very clear about how she voted.

NORMA DAVIS: I voted for Mary Landrieu for the Senate because she is a person that really believes in the people of Louisiana, and she's trustworthy. And her father, Moon Landrieu, I remember him because I'm 63 years old. So I remember him, and he was a person that loved poor, black, white, all nationalities. So I gave my vote to her this month.

ELLIOTT: Now, Mary Landrieu really needs the strong turnout in Orleans Parish. This is one of the few Democratic strongholds that are left in Louisiana because it's becoming an increasingly Republican state just about everywhere else.

MONTAGNE: And, Debbie, Louisiana has an unusual system which has allowed - and maybe you could explain it to us - Landrieu to be up against eight challengers from all parties on the ballot today.

ELLIOTT: Right, it's an open primary system, is what they call it. And basically all-comers from all parties are on the ballot today. Even though it's the general election in most places, here it's a primary. And then if nobody gets 50 percents plus one, then it goes to a runoff.

So that has set up a situation where Landrieu's main competition is from Republican Congressman Bill Cassidy. And like a lot of other GOP candidates around the country, he is definitely trying to make this contest a referendum on President Obama. And we have to remind people that President Obama lost to Mitt Romney by 17 points in Louisiana two years ago. Cassidy is a doctor from Baton Rouge. He's been very critical of Obamacare and Landrieu's vote in favor of the health care law.

Landrieu, meantime, is counting her experience and clout. You know, she's chair of the Senate Energy Committee, and that's a key position for an oil- and gas-producing state, like Louisiana. And she's really quick to point out on the campaign trail that she has broken ranks with the president when it's been important for the state of Louisiana. For instance, when he imposed the moratorium on offshore drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill, Landrieu spoke out against that and tried to fight it.

MONTAGNE: And the folks that make a business of handicapping elections have put Louisiana in the tossup group.

ELLIOTT: And we may not have that answer tonight. As I said, because of the primary system here, we might not have an outright winner. There is a great another Republican in addition to Bill Cassidy who has somewhat of a following here. He's a retired Air Force Colonel, Rob Maness. He's backed by the Tea Party. So barring a surprise surge by either Cassidy or Landrieu, the two of them are likely headed for a runoff, and that would be in a month from now in December. And so that sort of opens up a juicy prospect. If control of the U.S. Senate is somehow still up in the air after tonight's results, it could hinge here in Louisiana.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, Louisiana, it's not the only Southern state Senate race we may see go into overtime.

ELLIOTT: Right. It could happen in Georgia as well - another tight race there, where there is a Libertarian candidate on the ballot with Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue. Nunn is the daughter of former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn. Perdue is a businessman who's been an executive in some high-profile companies, including Reebok and Dollar General. And they're vying to replace Republican Saxby Chambliss who is retiring. It's been a very tight contest there, and if it goes to a runoff, that race would not be decided until January.

MONTAGNE: Debbie, thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Debbie Elliott joining us from New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.