THE PARTY OF BP…. I haven’t seen much in the way of polling on this, but I’d hazard a guess that BP isn’t especially popular with Americans right now. The company’s horrific safety record, its willingness to cut corners, its repeated falsehoods about the scope of the ongoing disaster, and its efforts to downplay the significance of the crisis have, I suspect, made BP rather villainous in the eyes of the public.

Common sense suggests politicians, especially in a competitive election year, would go out of their way to look “tough” against BP. No one wants to side with the foreign company responsible for the worst environmental disaster in American history.

No one, that is, except a surprising number of leading Republicans.

Rep. Joe Barton’s (R-Texas) public apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward this morning looks like a potential game-changer, but let’s not forget that there’s a much larger push among Republicans to defend BP.

GOP officials: Barton’s apology will likely be the most memorable moment of the dispute, but let’s not forget that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) slammed the escrow fund to help victims of the spill as “a redistribution-of-wealth fund” that could serve as a “gateway” for “more money to government.” Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) blasted the White House for securing the funds for Gulf Coast businesses and families, condemning the success as a “Chicago-style political shakedown.” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) disapproves of the escrow fund, and has said he’s worried it will undermine BP profits too much. At one point, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) went so far as to suggest American taxpayers should help pay for the relief effort, though he later backpedaled.

GOP candidates: In Nevada, Senate candidate Sharron Angle has said the appropriate response to the disaster is further deregulation of the oil industry. In Kentucky, Senate candidate Rand Paul said it’s “un-American” for the president to criticize BP.

GOP allies: A variety of Republican media personalities — Limbaugh, Hannity, and Oliver North — all read from identical talking points, calling the independently-operated escrow account “a slush fund.” Dick Armey has blasted the fund, as has the Heritage Foundation.

What on earth is going on here?

I suspect there are two factors playing out.

The first is that Republicans probably feel like they don’t have a choice, at least in a partisan sense. President Obama and Dems are going after BP — demanding the $20 billion, lifting the liability cap, proposing tax hikes and new safeguards — which means Republicans are necessarily inclined to move in the other direction. After all, whatever Democrats are for, Republicans are against, regardless or merit or circumstances.

As Kevin Drum noted, “Keep up the BP-bashing a little bit longer and eventually, just out of reflex, Fox News and the Republican Party will be calling for Obama to make payments to them.”

The second is that BP is a giant, private oil company, and when it’s under fire, the Republicans’ knee-jerk response is to launch a defense. Even if BP is to blame — even if BP is criminally responsible — Republicans want to blame government, bureaucrats, and environmentalists. Holding a giant corporation accountable just makes the GOP uncomfortable.

In an election context, this has the potential to be incredibly toxic. Barton’s public apology to BP will be part of about a zillion campaign ads over the next several months, and Republicans have made a huge strategic error positioning themselves as the Party of BP.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.