Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Flood Waters Ripple Though Iowa Politics

Flood Waters Ripple Though Iowa Politics

Displaced voters from Hurricane Katrina have had a dramatic impact on Louisiana state politics, as the areas most heavily hit were disproportionately African American and Democratic.

In Iowa, the 2008 flood damage has been is just as hard on each individual victim, but the sheer numbers aren't as demographically significant to the state's politics. Still, the high waters will ripple through the issues and agendas of the state's politics this fall.

Louisiana's Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco stepped down in 2007, in large part due to perceptions that she had mismanaged the response to Katrina. The man she defeated in 2003, Republican Bobby Jindal, swept to an easy 2007 victory. Senator Mary Landrieu is the only Democratic senator in the nation considered to be in any sort of trouble for re-election this year, in part because so many Democratic voters have moved out of the state. In fact, so many people have moved away that Louisiana may lose a seat in Congress in the 2010 census.

Iowa is likely to lose a seat in Congress after the census anyway, but our evacuations have been in the thousands, not in the tens or hundreds of thousands seen in Louisiana. Still, many voters are dislocated within the state.

Flood damage was predominantly in the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts, both represented by first-term Democrats who took over from Republicans in 2006. But neither Bruce Braley nor Dave Loebsack are on national Republican target lists, and both represent districts that returned to their on-paper Democratic leanings after many years in Republican hands. Ironically, the congressional candidate whose name was most associated with disaster relief, Cedar Rapids Republican Peter Teahen, narrowly lost his 2nd District primary to Mariannette Miller-Meeks just before the flood waters rose.

Braley and Loebsack both skipped the state Democratic convention Saturday to work on flood issues in their districts, and Loebsack has already cancelled a planned July visit to Iraq and Afghanistan to spend more time back home. More time in the district means more hands-on, nonpartisan case work for Braley and Loebsack. If they do it right, that means more voters with a personal connection of gratitude to the two newcomers.

Senator Tom Harkin did attend the state convention, but moved on to flood work later in the day. His opponent, Republican Christopher Reed, is little-known and coming off a narrow primary win. In fact, the first political casualty of the flood may have a recount in the Senate primary. Second-place finisher George Eichhorn had seemed litigious before the flood, challenging Iowa Public Television for airing a Reed interview before vote totals were finalized. But Eichhorn issued a brief concession statement late in the afternoon of June 13, the deadline to request a recount. It concluded by mentioning the flood.

Harkin's four terms of seniority and spot on the powerful Appropriations Committee make him a well-placed flood relief advocate. Flood work will also soften Harkin's partisan image, making Reed's job that much harder.

Flood-related nonpartisanship can, at least briefly, extend even to issues as big as the Iraq War. "I am sure there are several instances where I have puffed out my chest and boasted about what I might say if I had the chance to speak to the President," said Johnson County Democratic Supervisor Rod Sullivan, who got that chance when Bush toured flooded areas of Iowa City. "I got the chance to say one sentence, and I said, 'Thank you for coming, Mister President.' I just decided that I was not there to make a political statement, but to do my best to ensure that our area gets the most possible Federal assistance. Discretion was the better part of valor."

But a partisan tinge emerged at the presidential level even before the flood waters crested, as Republican nominee-to-be John McCain visited Columbus Junction to inspect the damage. Governor Chet Culver's office let it be known that McCain had been asked not to come, since the security needs of a Secret Service protected presidential candidate would interfere with flood work. Democrat Barack Obama had already cancelled a previously scheduled Cedar Rapids visit, citing the flood. McCain also took a hit in the blogosphere for offering "prayers" to Midwest flood victims, while Obama personally filled sandbags in Quincy, Illinois. (McCain's POW-related injuries have left him unable to lift his arms above his shoulders, and probably preclude sandbagging.)

The true test of bipartisanship could be seen in a special legislative session to deal with flood issues, which Culver says may happen in August. That will mean another set of bills, votes, and spending. The political impact could depend on whether bipartisan, unanimous solutions are found, or if minority Republicans draw a line in the sand(bags) on spending. In any case, it will tie up incumbents in Des Moines for some period of time, while their challengers campaign back home.

Culver may have caught a small break from the crisis. He faced a potentially hostile convention audience Saturday, as labor Democrats are angry over Culver's veto of their top priority "open scope" bill. But his speech, which focused mainly on flood recovery, was greeted politely by delegates.

Tomorrow: More localized political impacts of the flood.

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