In Harvey's Wake

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Donald Trump is supposed to be the big name in politics next year, even though he’s not going to be on the ballot. That’s how it goes for presidents. Voters vote with their thumbs in off-year elections: Up for popular presidents, down for unpopular ones. The results measure a chief executive like a rain gauge measures a storm.

But the tempestuous president has been trumped by a tempest: Texas politics and government is all about Hurricane Harvey now. The terrible storm triggered a disaster recovery already fraught with politics — these messes are always like that. It’s about money. It’s about who’s doing a good job and who’s not doing a good job, and about who they’re doing a good job for, and who they’re not helping.

The first phase of this — the widespread emergency — is over. But the storm left huge problems in its wake for the victims and the state, crowding out lots of petting political concerns and trivia and issues the pollsters discovered deep in their numbers.

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Harvey put the state’s political class on the spot: It’s time to actually do stuff. Voters should have a good idea by this time next year which officeholders are heroes and which ones are goats.

If Harvey is still at the top of the civic conversation in 12 months, Trump’s popularity might be the second- or third-most important issue of the 2018 elections.

So far, so good. Most of the early reviews in the days since Harvey left Texas have been good for mayors, county judges, governors and the people who aid and abet them.

Those officeholders avoided the snares that caught George W. Bush and his administration when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The elected class is, on this issue, relatively goat-free. That’s no small thing.

Harvey put the state’s political class on the spot: It’s time to actually do stuff. Voters should have a good idea by this time next year which officeholders are heroes and which ones are goats.

But they have a year of chances left as they decide what should get rebuilt or remade, what shouldn’t, and who should pay. Houston is already having public conversations and debates about property tax increases to pay some of the expenses. State and local officials are working the federal government for financial aid.

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Success and failure in those efforts will illustrate one of the cardinal rules of political leadership: The best politics is simply doing your job. Screw that up, and it doesn’t matter that you have a fat campaign account and give rousing speeches.

Republicans at the top of the ticket in Texas appear insulated; so far, it looks like the state’s top elected leaders will coast through the primaries without major opponents. Most, if the tickets were set today, would coast in November, too. Candidates have until Dec. 11 to put their names on the ballot and change the competitive situation.

Down the ballot is a different matter. Many of the Texans running for Congress and the Legislature — incumbent or not — will face tough opponents in the March primaries and/or the November general election.

For those in some parts of the state, that’ll mean campaigning in the wake of President Trump. Democrats are hopeful about that, dreaming of disillusioned voters running away from a Republican president. Some Republicans are worried, and for the same reasons. On the other hand, if Trump is more popular by the time voters are making their decisions, it could be a bumper year for Republicans and a bummer for the Democrats.

In the region swept by Hurricane Harvey, the political conversation could be more local, and more tangible to voters. The 2018 elections will give those voters a chance to grade the people in charge. Trump might be the guy dominating cable television, but Harvey — especially for people still dealing with its aftermath — will be front and center.

Candidates who want to avoid the Trump wave can talk about the storm and about issues related to the storm. Harvey, for them, is a diversion. The candidates who’d rather talk about Trump will have an obstacle in the way, a hurricane that had a more direct effect on voters than an attention-grabbing president. 

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Hurricane Harvey presents the state of Texas with a set of problems that are bigger than politics, a turn of fortune that could be a political boon to Gov. Greg Abbott. [Full story]

  • The races at the top of the 2018 Republican primary ballot don't look very competitive. That might be good news for the party's most conservative down-ballot candidates. [Full story]

  • The differences between the state's top legislative leaders will inform the coming Republican primaries, because Dan Patrick and Joe Straus reflect different wings of the Texas GOP. [Full story]

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