Candidates must respond to the storm and its aftermath in just the right way
TALLAHASSEE — The name Hurricane Michael won’t be on the ballot, but one of the most powerful storms ever to hit Florida could play a pivotal role in the state’s biggest election contests.
Gov. Rick Scott, who is looking to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, dominated the airwaves before the hurricane’s Wednesday landfall, and since the storm, has toured battered Panhandle communities, holding briefings and doing TV interviews.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum is mayor of Tallahassee, a city sideswiped by Michael and still reeling from downed trees and power outages.
Like Scott, Gillum got plenty of TV facetime before the storm, sounding warnings and looking to be on top of preparations – lately even wielding a chain saw to help with neighborhood cleanup.
Both men now, though, stare into an unknown — the storm’s aftermath — as the Nov. 6 election approaches.
“The real test is the first days after a storm,” said Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Barack Obama and earlier was Florida’s director of emergency management.
“If things go bad, and in the first days you’re pointing fingers, this is probably going to get worse for you real fast,” he added.
So far, post-storm recovery efforts seem to be running smoothly.
But Gillum faces obvious risk if the capital endures a prolonged period without power and Scott, too, could find his leadership questioned if Panhandle residents find the state’s response lacking.
Nelson, along with Republican Ron DeSantis, Gillum’s opponent in the governor’s race, don’t really have a direct role in relief efforts, but have been trying to appear supportive. Nelson stopped Friday at badly damaged Bay Medical Sacred Heart Hospital in Panama City, where patients had been evacuated.
Nelson, though, had been forced to retreat before the storm’s arrival from the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, after being kept out of a storm managers’ meeting.
Nelson still spent several days visiting Panhandle EOCs and doing media interviews in advance of the storm, while DeSantis and his wife, Casey, took to Twitter with a spot that urged contributions to storm relief efforts.
DeSantis plans to deliver hurricane supplies this weekend to Panhandle communities.
A U.S. Senate debate scheduled for Tuesday on CNN has been postponed at the request of Nelson and Scott, but a governor’s race debate remains set for that day for broadcast on Telemundo.
And even while he focuses on his hometown recovery, Gillum announced plans for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to campaign for him Saturday across South Florida.
All the candidates, though, are wrestling with the delicate balance of when to power up their political campaigns, after Nelson and DeSantis drew criticism when TV ads attacking their opponents ran even as Hurricane Michael was bearing down on Florida.
The Florida Republican Party ran a TV spot about an FBI investigation of Tallahassee city government that has hung over Gillum's campaign, and another that challenged the mayor’s response to Hurricane Hermine, which caused damage to his home town and lengthy power outages in 2016.
Democrats called the DeSantis ads despicable, urging that both sides put the governor’s race on pause while the storm demanded attention. Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber was among Democrats blasting the spots, calling them “stupidly partisan.”
The Florida Republican Party insisted it had ordered the ads taken down in hurricane-affected areas.
In the Senate race, partisans on both sides kept TV spots running even as the hurricane neared. A political action committee supporting Nelson ran spots calling Scott a “shady millionaire who doesn’t look out for you,” and a Republican PAC close to Scott aired an “empty suit” ad against Nelson.
“The visuals on TV — the property damage and loss of life — is enough for people to deal with,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist emeritus at the University of South Florida. “I think the campaigns have to take a back seat for a while. But when do you come back with a full-bore campaign? There’s no real clear answer.”
Scott, after touring Panhandle communities last week, turned back a question when asked how long he’d be off the U.S. Senate campaign trail.
“I’m worried about this. That’s where I’m spending my time,” Scott said. “I want people to be safe.”
While Hurricane Michael is considered the first major hurricane since 1960 to strike Florida during a governor’s race, hurricanes have played havoc with U.S. Senate and presidential contests before.
The 2004 election season coincided with four late summer and early fall hurricanes hitting Florida, drawing President George W. Bush to the state, where then-Gov. Jeb Bush encouraged him to roll up his sleeves and join him in distributing ice to victims.
The president’s rival, Democrat John Kerry, tried to appear sympathetic and free from partisanship when it came to responding to storm damage.
But for the Bush brothers, the disaster response stemmed from family history. Their father, President George H.W. Bush, was ridiculed for a slow federal response to 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.
The White House was targeted that year by an exasperated Kate Hale, director of Miami-Dade County’s emergency operations, who fumed, “Where the hell is the cavalry on this one?”
Hurricane Andrew also tested the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, who three weeks after the storm signed an executive order creating a committee to review the state’s preparedness and response, which had faltered.
Within a few years, Florida had established, and got the Legislature to finance, a sophisticated system for communications, evacuations, shelters, training and cooperation between governments.
The state’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, where officials are directing Hurricane Michael recovery, also grew out of that post-Andrew committee.
“It’s always a joy to have an election at the back end of a disaster,” Fugate said. “But for any politician, the rule is the same: Don’t screw this up.”