Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008 | 2:01 a.m.
It’s not often that politics offers a do-over, especially one as dramatic and with such high stakes as Monday’s for the Republicans, as Hurricane Gustav made landfall on the Gulf Coast.
With the party suspending much of its national convention here because of the hurricane, the party’s response to the storm could help or hurt the political fortunes of Nevada Republican Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller, who are in reelections fights back home.
Porter and Heller decided to sit out the Twin Cities partying, as did many Republican candidates running for Congress this fall. Long before the hurricane threat, they opted to remain in Nevada to campaign.
The two lawmakers are among many Republicans heeding their leaders’ advice to distance themselves from the party. Voters tell pollsters they prefer Democrats now.
Just as Republicans were working to divorce themselves from their unpopular party, President Bush’s legacy reentered our living rooms this week — not in person, as he canceled his Monday speech to the convention, but in the memory of the administration’s much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
The Bush administration’s record on Katrina overshadows this convention, and now so much is riding on how the president and his party’s hoped-for successor responds this time.
If Sen. John McCain proves to voters he can ably respond to the crisis, he can craft a new narrative in the disaster chronicles, analysts said. If he — or the administration — stumbles, those lower on the ticket will also suffer.
“It’s up to McCain to come to the mantle and show how we’d be different,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant who, as one of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s top aides, had helped navigate post-Katrina for party leadership.
“If McCain does well, everyone else benefits.”
But Tim Sahd, who monitors House races for the nonpartisan National Journal’s Hotline, says the risks outweigh the rewards for candidates such as Porter and Heller.
Even as McCain headed to the Gulf and the administration sprung into action, Sahd said voters will see this as politicians simply doing their jobs.
On the flip side, if the public perceives a botched response to the crisis, the Republican Party will get the blame, he said.
“It can only hurt Republicans, not help,” Sahd said. “I don’t see how they can get much of a lift out of a good response to a hurricane.”
Many analysts pinpoint the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as the beginning of hard times for the Republican Party. New Orleans has a beloved spot in the popular psyche, a city like no other in America. Watching its people suffer as the administration was slow to respond became a turning point.
Republicans went on to lose more than 30 House seats in fall 2006, losing majority control, as voters grew increasingly upset over Republicans’ handling of the war in Iraq and the stories of corruption coming from Washington.
As Gustav bore down, Republicans gathering in St. Paul would not repeat the hurricane narrative.
Historians say they cannot recall a convention being scaled back like this in response to a natural disaster. The first comment from nearly any Republican you speak to here revolves around their concern for Gulf residents.
The Nevada delegation has been struggling to find its place in the new calculus, and party boss Sue Lowden told delegates at Monday’s luncheon she was seeking suggestions for offering aid. A blood drive had been recommended.
“We are trying to come up with an idea here on how we can help,” she told the delegates and guests. By the end of the meal, she announced Nevadans had contributed $1,001 toward relief efforts.
Even though Bush’s talk was canceled, first lady Laura Bush addressed the crowd Monday afternoon at the convention hall. McCain’s wife, Cindy, joined her on stage and gave conventioneers a Web site for relief efforts.
Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton who writes extensively about Congress, said the hurricane is playing out as a political wild card.
“This just brings President Bush directly back into the campaign, and connects McCain’s fate to Bush’s performance more than he might like,” he said.
Although one conservative commentator said at a Monday forum that congressional candidates may regret having ditched the convention as McCain swiftly responds, other analysts mostly agree lawmakers such as Porter and Heller are wise to stay home.
Sahd cannot envision a successful rewriting of the Hurricane Katrina story. “I don’t know if Republicans can ever correct what they did with Katrina politically,” he said.
Candidates running this fall are “still going to want to be identified as an independent.”