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Hurricane Sandy: Freeze on politics affects key races for Congress, too

Amid the struggle to control the Senate in the next Congress, Hurricane Sandy put two close races on hold, in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where the candidates’ focus turned to storm recovery.

The presidential campaigns aren’t the only political operations trying to decide what to do afterhurricane Sandy swept aside the final-week playbook of this election.

The superstorm has upended some tight congressional races as well — putting a weather-related pause in some campaigns and steering others in new directions.

In Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown (R) and challengerElizabeth Warren (D) were scheduled to hold a final televised debate Tuesday night, but the event ended up being cancelled because of the storm. The race is one of the tightest Senate contests in the nation, as the two parties battle for control of the Senate in the next Congress.

Both candidates put their focus on storm recovery early in the week. Then, as Ms. Warren emphasized the opportunity to reschedule the debate, Senator Brown declined the offer and scheduled a statewide bus tour that would occupy his remaining campaign time.

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In Connecticut, too, Sandy’s raging winds supplanted the fury of political campaigning. The storm prompted contenders in another close Senate race to go on hiatus, and focus on helping residents find safety and relief.

“If you or your family need a place to charge your cell phone, get online, or get some water, I invite you to stop by one of these eight field offices,” Republican candidate Linda McMahon wrote in a blog post. “While several of our offices have lost power, the ones listed below all have electricity….”

Her rival, US Rep. Chris Murphy (D), was busy Tuesday meeting with municipal leaders to determine their post-storm needs, the Associated Press reported.

For politicians, Sandy has at the very least presented a test of poise and decorum. Too little focus on the storm would look out of touch. Yet candidate efforts to be “on the ground” can come off, to some observers, as efforts to be self-serving more than community-serving.

In many congressional races in the wide area affected by the storm, candidates continued to air TV ads. But some campaign websites are essentially on hold, either posting a few storm updates or nothing new at all since before the storm hit.

All this parallels, to some degree, the way the storm upended a presidential contest that appeared on course for a frenetic final week of swing-state appearances by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Instead, for several days the nation and the candidates turned their attention to the storm instead.

Responding to disasters is, foremost, the job of chief executives (governors, mayors, the president) rather than of legislators. But incumbent members of Congress haven’t been shy about speaking up for storm relief in recent days.

On Tuesday, Sen. Bob Casey (D) urged the president to expand the scope of the Pennsylvania disaster declaration made before the storm’s landfall. “The devastation from Hurricane Sandy has resulted in the need to ensure that additional services are available,” said a press release from the senator, who holds a current polling edge in his race for reelection.

Five New York area members of Congress joined across party lines in writing a letter to House leaders, calling for a hurricane relief funding package to be “the first order of business once Congress reconvenes” on Nov. 13. The Long Island representatives cited the urgency of repair efforts, given the approach of winter weather. The letter was signed by Democrats Tim BishopGary AckermanCarolyn McCarthy, and Steve Israel, and by Republican Peter King.

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Another representative from New York state, Nan Hayworth (R), also emphasized storm relief. Some opponents had criticized her, in the wake of last year’s hurricane Irene, for aligning with other Republicans in the view that emergency relief funds should be paid for by cuts in other federal spending. In the rolling list of items at the top of her website Wednesday, all are Sandy-related.

Reps. Bishop and Hayworth are each in races ranked by the RealClearPolitics website as among the 50 closest in the House this year.

In the Massachusetts and Connecticut Senate races, the Democrats have a lead in some recent polls, but both are considered “toss-ups.”