Chuck Todd: Takeaways From 'Meet the Voters' - Louisiana Edition

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On our last stop of the ‘Meet the Voters’ tour through the American Midwest and South, we stopped in Louisiana, yet another red state where a Democrat is fighting to keep their job. Here, it’s Sen. Mary Landrieu, who’s battling two Republicans – doctor and congressman Bill Cassidy and Tea Party favorite Rob Maness.

We spoke with voters and two of the race’s three candidates to better understand what issues will decide this unusual “jungle primary” -- and its possible runoff in December.

Here are our takeaways from our swing through the state:

The real question here is whether there is any path at all for Landrieu to win outright on November 4 and avoid a grueling runoff.

A 50 percent win for Landrieu seems like a stretch: she would have to turn out enough black voters to make them 30 to 32 percent of the electorate, AND she’d need to win, say, 31 to 34 percent of the white vote. But, ironically, the presence of Rob Maness – despite being a thorn in the side for the Republican establishment here – gives conservatives an alternative to Cassidy, which could help with GOP base turnout and make it that much harder for Landrieu to get to 50 percent. Maness’s campaign has also informed Cassidy’s relatively low-profile approach – which could be risky. Cassidy is trying to avoid a mini-GOP primary with Maness, and he’s clearly playing for the runoff. But if Landrieu manages to push to 50 percent on Election Night, he’s going to regret going with that four-corners offense instead of driving harder for the win. In fact, even if Landrieu is in the high 40s on November 4, she’ll be decently well-positioned for a runoff. If she’s barely cracking 40 percent? It’s very hard to imagine victory for her in December.

Her energy clout should be saving her, but, instead, it’s part of her problem.

In a less partisan atmosphere, Landrieu would have a get-out-of-jail free card: her chairmanship of the Energy and National Resources Committee. She’s the head of the Senate panel that most directly affects her home state, where drilling is paramount. But nobody has been a bigger victim of the Reid/McConnell dysfunction than Landrieu, who hasn’t been able to use that power nearly to the extent that past energy chiefs could. Plus, she’s in a party where the majority of her ideological allies are in a completely different place on energy – something she acknowledges. It’s handcuffed her and kept her from wielding the kind of clout – and political untouchability -- that used to be possible for powerful chairman.

It's worth noting that energy policy was the first thing Landrieu mentioned when I asked her why Obama has such a hard time in Louisiana -- specifically his decision to put a moratorium on drilling in the Gulf, which she says cost scores of Louisiana jobs. But Landrieu was also candid about something that few candidates say out loud: the role his race plays. "I'll be very, very honest with you. The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans,” she said. “It's been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader."

Landrieu’s actually having fun.

Of all the Democratic incumbents who are in trouble this cycle, Landrieu seems to be enjoying this the most. Plenty of Democrats in Washington are quietly writing her off, but she doesn’t seem to be rattled. If she’s nervous about losing, she’s not letting it show – unlike some of her party colleagues. The reason? She’s been through this before. In 2002, she pushed through a tough runoff as well – although, in that case, control of the Senate had already been decided, so the outcome mattered a lot less than it could this cycle. If this becomes a runoff situation when control of the chamber hangs in the balance, it’s going to be a whole different ballgame in Louisiana.

- NBC's Carrie Dann contributed