Sandy packs political punch

Washington — 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 races in Connecticut and other states and could even impact voting.

Like President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Connecticut politicians have put their campaigns on hold — although who still have power continue to be deluged with campaign ads.

Candidates, like Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, have swerved from their re-election efforts to their jobs as elected officials whose first priority is seeing to the needs of their constituents, visiting shelters and National Guard troops.

Himes joined Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Gov. Dannel Malloy Tuesday on a storm damage assessment tour that included Stamford and Bridgeport.

Meanwhile, 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.”

Gary Rose, head of Sacred Heart University’s political science department, said post-disaster, “The advantage falls to the incumbent.

“They can now put on their crisis leader hats,” he said.

But John Fortier, an expert of 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.

The campaign of  Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon has stopped its relentless email blitzes attacking rival Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District. McMahon’s campaign instead sent out a mass email Tuesday urging storm victims, to use any one of six campaign offices that still have power to recharge cell phones, go online or get water.

Meanwhile 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.

But the political advantage to the storm, if there is any, may fall to the state’s Democrats, said Rose.

He said President Obama’s quick response to the so-called super storm has strengthened him politically, 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 Romney who campaigned recently for McMahon, said in an interview with the Today show “the federal government’s response has been great.”

“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 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.

But even as candidates begin to refocus on their races, the storm’s effects on the political system will linger.

Some voting places may be destroyed or out of power when voters go to the polls next Tuesday.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill has planned a conference call Wednesday with about 200 local elections officials to determine the full impact of the storm on the voting process.

One problem is that displaced voters in the state cannot, under Connecticut law, vote in another polling place — even though those who were evacuated to other states can use absentee ballots.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said 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.