Hurricane Sandy’s romp along the East Coast did more than flood homes and streets and down trees and power lines. It also upended political strategies in the crucial final week before the election.
Longstanding plans had to be tossed and new playbooks written. The trick for political candidates in the storm’s aftermath Tuesday was to stay visible without being overtly political.
U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy accompanied the governor on his disaster tour in Newtown. As a sitting congressman, Murphy, who’s running for the Senate, had an official role to play. “My concern is simply making sure people are safe,” he said.
“Chris’s focus now is on making sure the 41 towns in the 5th Congressional District are getting what they need,” said Ben Marter, a campaign spokesman. “He is working with the delegation and the governor to secure federal disaster assistance.”
But Murphy’s GOP rival for the seat Linda McMahon also toured emergency operation centers and at least two shelters.
“Linda has been spending all day visiting, volunteering in shelters, delivering granola bars and coloring books for kids,” said Corry Bliss, McMahon’s campaign manager. “She’ll be delivering pizzas tonight for several shelters.”
McMahon used social-media platforms to send out storm updates Monday and to invite people without power Tuesday to use her field offices to recharge cellphones, a soft form of campaigning. Murphy also Tweeted about his stops.
Democratic 4th District Rep. Jim Himes also swerved from his re-election efforts to his job as an elected official whose first priority is the needs of his constituents, visiting shelters and National Guard troops. Himes, too, joined Gov. Dannel Malloy Tuesday, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on a storm damage assessment tour that included Stamford and Bridgeport.
Himes’ rival, Republican Steve Obsitnik, has had to cancel campaign events and postpone two debates.
“This is usually the time for get-out-the-vote efforts,” said Obsitnik campaign manager John Puskar. “But you can’t be making contacts when people don’t have power.”
Republican Andrew Roraback, who is running against Democrat Elizabeth Esty in the 5th Congressional District, has reverted to his role as a state senator to respond to Hurricane Sandy, said Roraback campaign spokesman Chris Cooper.
Gary Rose, head of Sacred Heart University’s political science department, said that post-disaster, “The advantage falls to the incumbent. They can now put on their crisis leader hats.”
But John Fortier, an expert on the electoral process at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said, “It’s not a slam dunk for incumbents.”
“Politicians who are seen as not doing a good job, or being a little too political could get in trouble,” he said.
But the political advantage to the storm, if there is any, may fall to the state’s Democrats, said Rose.
President Obama’s quick response to the so-called super storm has strengthened him politically, Rose said, and Connecticut’s Democratic candidates could benefit from last minute support from undecided, independent voters.
“Obama has even got high praise from (New Jersey Gov.) Chris Christie,” Rose said. “That resonates in the Northeast.”
Christie, a Republican and frequent surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney who campaigned recently for McMahon, said in an interview with the “Today” show, “I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the president, personally. He has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area …the president has been outstanding in this.”
If Obama makes a visit to Connecticut in a tour of the multi-state disaster area, Democrats like Murphy, Esty and Himes could get an even bigger bounce, Rose said.
There’s a sign that Connecticut’s political campaigns may be getting back on track even before all the power in the state is restored. A debate between Esty and Roraback hosted by the AARP that had been canceled earlier this week has been rescheduled for Wednesday.
Except for the 600,000 utility customers still without power, the campaign never ended in one sense: The 24/7 political ads continued throughout the storm and its aftermath.
Campaigns monitored power restoration efforts, trying to gauge if long-planned get-out-the-vote efforts will require last-minute revisions before voters go to the polls next Tuesday.
“I think the biggest concern is we don’t want to see polling places moved,” said Julie Sweet, Esty’s campaign manager.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said Tuesday that he’s researching the law to determine if FEMA can help make it easier for storm victims to cast their ballots by providing generators and other resources to Sandy-hit states.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said the state’s experience a year ago with a freak snow storm a week before the municipal elections turned out to be valuable preparation for this year.
“We’re far more ready than we were a year ago,” she said. “We have emergency plans put in place. Everybody knows how to change a polling place within the law. We’ve given this far more thought than we did a year ago.”
Merrill will have a conference call Wednesday with registrars of voters to get a sense of problems with lack of power or accessibility to polling places.
Theoretically, a town could hold elections without power.
“You don’t really need power for these machines. They have back up batteries,” she said.
One value of last year’s experience, she said, is that registrars know they needed to have the batteries fully charged before the storm.