Oil Spill Could Turn Political Fortunes for Gulf Coast Politicians

The BP oil spill may be choking the Gulf ecosystem, but for a few well-positioned coastal politicians it has breathed new life into their careers.

Across the Gulf states, the spill has over the past 100 days given lawmakers the chance to step into the national spotlight and show a little leadership -- by wrestling with the Obama administration, sounding off against BP and pulling the battered Gulf region through yet another environmental and economic crisis.

Though Gulf fisherman, rig workers and practically everyone tied to coastal tourism are facing an uncertain future, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, nevertheless, could bolster a handful of political fortunes, especially with voters having 97 days to decide on their candidates before the Nov. 2 election.

But first, there may be no better example of a political comeback than Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

A year ago, the governor was pilloried for delivering a lackluster GOP response to President Obama's first address to Congress. The performance appeared to bench him as a potential 2012 presidential hopeful for the Republican Party. He wasn't even a choice on the 2012 straw poll ballots at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference or the Conservative Political Action Conference this year -- though he said he wasn't interested anyway.

But Jindal sprung into action shortly after the deadly April 20 explosion that triggered the spill at the Deepwater Horizon rig. He criticized the federal government for being slow to respond and he fought the administration over its moratorium on offshore drilling. And he made a very public and visible effort to show he was on top of the disaster response -- touring the coast, putting out a restoration plan and holding frequent press conferences to talk about it.

Images of Jindal giving his allegedly bumbling response to the presidential address were replaced by images of Jindal on a boat getting up close and personal with the oil damage.

"Probably the person who's come out of this the best is Bobby Jindal," said Kirby Goidel, political science professor and director of the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University. "This is all a chance to be redefined as someone who's an advocate."

A Rasmussen Reports poll released at the end of June showed Jindal's state approval rating at 74 percent -- a 10-percentage-point jump from April.

Goidel said Jindal has virtually assured re-election in the 2011 gubernatorial race. He said despite claims that Jindal has the job he wants, "there's no question" the governor has ambitions for the White House.

He said both Jindal and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist have shown oil spill leadership in a way that should help them with voters.

Of the two, Crist faces the most immediate political challenge. The former Republican made the risky move of switching his affiliation to independent in his run for the U.S. Senate this fall. But the Real Clear Politics average of polls now has him leading Republican Marco Rubio by nearly 4 percentage points -- though a recent Rasmussen poll showed Rubio up by 2 points. Democrat Kendrick Meeks continues to trail in general election matchups.

The impact of the spill on the U.S. Senate race in Louisiana is a little more fuzzy. On one hand, it's allowed Sen. David Vitter to steer clear of questions about his connection to the D.C. Madam scandal and a longtime aide with a lengthy criminal history. He uses his interviews and public appearances to slam the Obama administration over its drilling moratorium and response effort.

But the spill has also given Democratic challenger Rep. Charlie Melancon exposure statewide.

"The oil spill has given Charlie Melancon a chance to showcase his leadership skills," said Kevin Franck, spokesman for the Louisiana Democratic Party. "The most stark contrast Louisianans have seen during the oil spill is Charlie Melancon has been able to actually deliver results and David Vitter has been relegated to complaining loudly."

Franck pointed to Melancon's efforts getting a mobile health unit for clean-up workers and pushing a bill to make small business loans more affordable for spill victims. He said the oil spill has been bad for Vitter's image, accusing the senator of sticking up for BP by pushing measures that could limit the firm's compensation liability for Gulf residents. Vitter pushed a bill that would tie BP's liability to its profits -- the senator claimed that could be as high as $20 billion, though Franck said given BP's losses it would be far less than what Gulf Coast residents need.

Melancon also drew some attention in May when he got choked up at a subcommittee hearing about the Gulf oil spill damage on Capitol Hill.

Though most recent polls have shown Vitter well ahead in general election match-ups, internal polling from the Melancon campaign shows the race a dead heat with Vitter leading by just 1 percentage point. The internal polling showed Melancon's image generally improving among those surveyed in recent weeks.

Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar, though, highlighted the senator's efforts to fight the administration's drilling moratorium and dismissed Melancon's performance.

"The people of Louisiana know Senator Vitter has been a strong leader throughout this disaster and a desperate political opponent, Charlie Melancon who gave Obama an 'A' for his job performance, isn't helping bring back the 150,000 jobs that Obama's moratorium will cost Louisiana's economy," he said in an e-mail.

Goide said the internal poll seems like an outlier. He said it doesn't yet appear Melancon has gained much traction from the spill. He said the fact that a Democratic president is in the White House ties Melancon's hands, preventing him getting too tough on the administration and effectively ceding that role to Vitter.

Goidel said Jindal's challenge will be to sustain his restored image after the leak is plugged and after the spill is cleaned up.

"That's what he's got to think about," Goidel said. "Your shelf life of being the hot thing in politics is not particularly long."