WASHINGTON – Population shifts caused by the exodus of hurricane victims from the Gulf Coast (search) could have ripple effects for years to come in Louisiana political races and perhaps beyond.
How big depends on how many people stay away, which ones stay away and where they end up putting down roots.
The early thinking is that the evacuees least likely to return to their homes in Louisiana (search) may be the poorest — and thus, Democrats for the most part. That would hurt the party in a state where Republicans already were making inroads.
If the lion's share of those leaving settle in Texas, that could work to the advantage of Democrats in President Bush's home state.
"I'm believing that the greatest displacement occurs among those who are traditionally Democratic voters," said Elliott Stonecipher, an independent political consultant from Shreveport, La.
"Based on sheer demographics, those who are Republican voters have the wherewithal and, we believe, the will to go home and rebuild," he said.
Stonecipher sees the New Orleans area losing Democratic voters and a political network that was of great benefit to Sen. Mary Landrieu (search) and other Democrats.
"On Election Day there is a well-oiled machine that knows how to turn those votes out from specific neighborhoods and in specific ways," Stonecipher said.
Landrieu was elected in a 2002 runoff by a 52-48 margin, a difference of just 42,000 votes. New Orleans was the base of her support.
"If that's compromised, that could be a problem for her," said John Maginnis, who publishes a political newsletter in Louisiana.
Landrieu is not up for re-election until 2008. Kathleen Blanco, the Democratic governor, who also won by a 52-48 margin, faces re-election in 2007.
Ray Nagin (search), the Democratic mayor of New Orleans, is up for re-election in February. No one knows if the city could even hold an election by then.
Overall, said Maginnis, Republicans have made gains in Louisiana in recent years and "the effects of the storm aftermath probably will help them." President Bush carried the state in 2000 and 2004; Democrat Bill Clinton did so in the previous two presidential elections.
Still, demographic shifts within the state could work to the Democrats' advantage in some cases, Maginnis said.
For example, if the sizable evacuee population now in Baton Rouge, the capital, decides to settle in, that could make the 6th Congressional District, a politically competitive one now held by GOP Rep. Richard Baker (search) more Democratic.
In Texas, which stands to gain the largest number of evacuees, analysts do not expect much impact on statewide races. But local races — for everything from school boards to legislative seats and perhaps even congressional districts — could be affected.
The place to watch is Houston, which has taken in the most evacuees, at least temporarily.
Richard Murray, director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston, said Republicans hold every elective office in Harris County, which takes in most of Houston, but do not win by much.
"This could accelerate the tipping of the county, which was expected to happen in the next four to six years," he said.
While politics is taking a back seat for now to the urgent needs of the hurricane victims, "my Democratic friends are smiling," Murray said.
Bob Stein, professor of political science at Rice University in Houston, said the political impact on Texas depends in large part on how concentrated or widely dispersed the evacuees are.
He noted that sprawling Houston is one of the nation's least segregated big cities because it has no zoning laws, so hurricane victims could well be broadly scattered, diluting their impact in any particular race.
In any event, though, with Texas' Hispanic population surging and its black population growing faster than the white population, demographic shifts already are pushing the state toward the Democrats. Katrina could help hasten the trend.
"Our politics may be Republican," Stein said, "but that's just a temporary condition."
The thought is echoed by David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused on black issues. He said adding a substantial number of blacks to the state could "potentially make Texas more competitive in the not-too-distant future."
As for Louisiana, Bositis said, "If proportionally more whites come back than blacks, it'll make Louisiana somewhat whiter, which would statewide be to the advantage of the Republicans." But he, like other political analysts, said it will take time to see where evacuees end up settling and how many ultimately return home.