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Louisiana Political Storm Brewing

Nov. 7, 2006 might seem like several lifetimes away for the residents of the hurricane ravaged Gulf region. But what transpires over the next several weeks will prove especially critical for the political futures of Louisiana Reps. Charlie Melancon (D) and Charles Boustany (R) — two of the lawmakers who represent some of the most devastated areas.

While there has already been some speculation about how the flight of refugees from the state could impact Louisiana’s statewide races in 2007 and 2008, as well as the next round of reapportionment and redistricting after 2010, the two freshmen, both of whom hold highly competitive seats, face a much more immediate test next year.

While both Democrats and Republicans are publicly saying the time for politics is not now, a political war is nevertheless brewing behind the scenes over the race in Melancon’s south central Louisiana 3rd district. And the aftermath of the hurricane appears to have only magnified the political stakes for both parties.

The race in the 3rd district is already well under way, with state Sen. Craig Romero (R), who just barely missed the 2004 runoff, the only Republican running against Melancon so far.

Democrats have criticized Romero for traveling to Washington, D.C., earlier this month for political meetings, at a time when nearly one-third of the territory he hopes to represent lay uninhabitable in Katrina’s wake.

Party operatives also note that while Romero was in Washington, Melancon was in the state lawmaker’s hometown, New Iberia, meeting with evacuees who had fled areas devastated by the hurricane.

Democrats became more irate when they learned that during his trip, Romero was handing out a voting analysis of the district, which appeared to show that his candidacy could benefit if Katrina refugees do not return to the district.

“The fact that Craig Romero was deceptive about why he was in Washington during Katrina relief efforts was wrong,” said a Democratic campaign strategist. “Now, added to that we find out that he’s campaigning based on the fact that Republican numbers could improve because family’s homes have been swept away. That’s disgusting and Louisianans will be appalled.”

Romero consultant Brent Littlefield defended the trip, saying that after federal assistance had arrived in the district Romero realized he “could do just as much good or more good discussing with federal officials the continued needs of the state” by traveling to Washington.

Littlefield lobbed criticism of his own at Melancon, who he said has “done a lot of press conferences.”

He also criticized Melancon for a Washington fundraiser that had been scheduled to benefit his campaign tonight. The event was canceled Wednesday.

“Clearly the campaigning hasn’t stopped in Charlie’s office,” Littlefield said.

Littlefield said that Romero has in essence suspended his campaign in the wake of Hurricane Rita, which left several thousand homes in his state Senate district under water.

He said that Romero is no longer actively seeking campaign donations, although money continues to arrive at the campaign’s post office box.

Littlefield said that the timetable for when Romero would reactivate his campaigning remains unclear, but he added, “We are going to run an aggressive campaign and we are going to point out why Craig would be a more effective leader than Charlie.”

Meanwhile, a Melancon spokesman said the Congressman remains focused on efforts to help his constituents recover from the disaster, leaving him little time to think about his re-election race.

“We’re still working hard for our district,” said Ellery Gould, adding “we’re just not looking at next year.”

Gould said that Melancon has also suspended his fundraising and has only been on Capitol Hill a total of six or seven days since Katrina hit.

“He’s spent so little of his time in Washington … all of his time needs to be spent on his legislative priorities,” he said.

The 3rd district, along with the southwestern 7th district, represented by Boustany, are currently the only seats in the state that are expected to play host to competitive Congressional races next year.

Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who represents flood-ravaged New Orleans, could also face a difficult re-election, although his opposition would come in the form of one or more primary challengers. Jefferson is currently under investigation by the FBI.

Boustany’s re-election prospects hinge largely on whether former Rep. Chris John (D-La.) decides to mount a bid for his former seat. John said after Katrina devastated the neighboring 3rd district that he was more inclined to run — but that was before last weekend, when Hurricane Rita tore through the territory he once represented.

Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), whose district was hit by three hurricanes last year, said that if Members of Congress do their job and work hard, they shouldn’t suffer political repercussions.

“You’re the shock absorber on the car, you’re taking all the bumps between here and Washington. trying to do your job, but you really become a hurricane coordinator of sorts in your district,” he said.

Foley said that during disasters like Katrina, Members are able to become more like local officials, and are more closely in touch with their constituents.

“It really does cause you to be identified I think a little different from that distance place up on the Hill, Washington, D.C., which I think has little intersection in their lives,” he said.

Foley noted that important logistical questions such as whether polling places will even be operational will remain unanswered for some time.

Political questions remain unanswered as well.

Will voters in the affected areas take their frustrations out on one party, or incumbents across the board? How will candidates approach the traditional aspects of campaigning, such as fundraising and partisan attacks?

The answers to these questions and others aren’t likely to become evident for months, but there is little doubt that the storms will have a major bearing on next year’s elections.

“Absolutely it matters. It’s going to have a tremendous impact on politics down there,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with Pelican State politics. “The voters are focusing on government and what government did and did not do. I think it will certainly influence their opinion and it will cut these incumbents either way.”