Pols Largely Unscathed by Hurricane Katrina Aftermath

Hurricane Katrina may have left mountains of debris and shattered lives in its wake, but despite its disastrous toll, most political careers are still intact.

"We thought there would be, but it doesn't seem that anybody is going to be swept up by (Katrina)," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks federal elections.

"In terms of having someone who was directly affected by something they did in Katrina, I certainly don't see that," added Peter Burns, assistant professor of political science at Loyola University in Louisiana.

"First of all, common sense tells you if any politician would have been nailed, it would have been Ray Nagin," Burns said of the New Orleans mayor. "But he still won."

Nagin was one of three key elected officials -- the others being President Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- who stood to lose the most after the onslaught of Katrina and subsequent flooding, which claimed an estimated 1,600 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Local, state and federal authorities have been invariably blamed for what critics call a largely ineffective humanitarian response to the immediate disaster and a slow recovery since, particularly in Louisiana.

Nagin, a Democrat, was the only one of the three facing re-election this year. After a rancorous primary and runoff against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, Nagin won with 52 percent of the vote.

"I think Nagin dodged a bullet and I think he had to play racial politics to dodge the bullet," said Juan Williams, a FOX News contributor and correspondent for National Public Radio. Nagin is black; Landrieu, if he had won, would have been the first white mayor in New Orleans in more than 30 years.

Meanwhile, while Blanco's approval numbers plummeted after Katrina, mostly from the bungled response in New Orleans, they have recently begun to creep upwards. Political observers in the state said Blanco, also a Democrat, has been trying to rehabilitate her image through a series of state initiatives to get the hard-hit areas back on track, particularly in time for her own re-election campaign in 2007.

"Her test is yet to come and clearly she was damaged," Williams said.

"Her poll numbers have come up somewhat," said Robert Hogan, assistant professor of political science at Louisiana State University. He said the Blanco administration has used the state legislative sessions to tackle big agenda items related to the recovery.

Bush and his administration, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency, took a big political hit after Katrina, but the president is not up for re-election. The president's low poll numbers aren't even necessarily tied to Katrina, but to other unrelated factors, like the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq.

"I do think President Bush was damaged by (Katrina)," said Williams. However, "I think he was able to push some of the blame onto Blanco and Nagin, and secondly, I think there are bigger issues in the country. I think Iraq is where people would put their complaints on President Bush."

So with Katrina and later Hurricane Rita smacking Louisiana and Mississippi, with an estimated 200,000 New Orleans evacuees, most analysts agree that no one has taken a real political hit.

"I would have to say, that in thinking about it just for an hour, the answer is no," said Burns.

As far as the congressional midterm election goes, in two of the most impacted districts, little Katrina-related friction is affecting the race, say analysts. In the 2nd Congressional District, Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson is fighting for his political life, but because of his indictment on bribery charges, not Katrina.

In the storm-affected 3rd Congressional District, Louisiana Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon is in a competitive race, but because it's a competitive district, say election watchers. He has actually raised his standing among constituents because of his response to the disaster, said Robert Hogan, political science professor at Louisiana State University.

"Melancon has actually got a good bit of positive press after the hurricane," he said. "All indications is that Melancon has the upper hand," in the race.

On the statewide level, Louisiana's House and Senate aren't elected until 2007. New Orleans had a city council election, but no major shake-ups will occur there either, said Burns.

"People looked at [local officials] and said it's not their fault," Burns said, noting that much of the blame, at least in New Orleans, has been targeted at state and federal bureaucracies like FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

In Mississippi, elected officials have largely been praised, not pilloried, for their response to Katrina damage on the state's southern coast, said Richard Forgette, chair of the political science department at the University of Mississippi. Gov. Haley Barbour is "generally seen as doing an effective job at managing the disaster."

One Mississippi congressman, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, who represents the district hit hardest by the hurricane, had a tough primary opponent, state Rep. Chuck Espy, who criticized Thompson's post-Katrina delivery. But the incumbent won handily in the June match.

Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat whose home was destroyed in the hurricane, has actually enjoyed some popularity after the disaster, sparring publicly with former FEMA director Michael Brown over the government's response to victims.

As for statewide politics, "there hasn't been any statewide electoral fallout," mainly because their elections aren't for another year, said Forgette.

Emily Metzgar, a freelance columnist for the Shreveport Times in Louisiana, said she believes there is "a lot percolating under the surface" and that Blanco may yet face a backlash as recovery efforts continue on a slow path.

"Keep in mind the environment here in Louisiana even before the storms," she said, charging that the state government had been functioning poorly on a number of fronts.

She said Hurricane Katrina amplified the problems and Blanco may be in more trouble than the polls indicate.

"I'm tempted to say that these polls don't really get what's going on right now," said Metzgar. "I'm not certain that [Nagin's] election is representative of the rest of the state."

Analysts in Louisiana suggest that because of the massive shift of black, traditionally Democratic voters out of New Orleans, the real political impact won't be felt until the 2007 elections.

Hogan points to buzz suggesting that Blanco's former rival, Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Republican now representing the 1st District in the New Orleans area, is gearing up to challenge her next year.

Jindal lost to Blanco in 2003, 52 percent to 48 percent, but he could benefit from a loss of dependable Democratic voters in New Orleans, the analysts agreed.

However, it is still unclear how many of those New Orleans voters left the state for good, or just moved to other parts of Louisiana. If that's the case, demographics may be altered a bit, but Democrats could maintain their competitiveness in Louisiana, one of the few southern states that haven't turned entirely "red" in the last few decades.

Forgette said both Mississippi and Louisiana will have to deal with a bit of electoral uncertainty, and perhaps that's Katrina's political legacy.

"What we know has happened is there has been a huge out-migration, a huge change in the electorate. I'm not sure what that electorate looks like in a post-Katrina world," he said.