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How hurricane Michael could affect Florida’s high-stakes midterms

Why We Wrote This

During previous natural disasters, bipartisan cooperation was the order of the day as everyone worked to help those in harm’s way. That unwritten code of civility has faded, as seen in Florida, where political gamesmanship continued even as the storm hit.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/FILE
President Barack Obama is greeted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie upon arrival at Atlantic City International Airport in Atlantic City, N.J., to visit areas damaged by Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 31, 2012.

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As hurricane Michael gained force and barreled toward Florida’s Panhandle earlier this week, TV viewers in the storm’s path were treated to a bizarre combination of official warnings about the storm, and then ads slamming those same officials – Tallahassee's Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is running for governor, and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for Senate – as untrustworthy. In Florida, the nation’s biggest political battleground, the massive hurricane has only driven a deeper partisan wedge into tight Senate and governor’s races. Pundits are gaming out political winners and losers, even as search and rescue operations continue. And so, like so much else in the Trump era, unwritten political norms around natural disasters are fraying or vanishing altogether. “The tradition in Florida was that it was not only inappropriate to be running negative ads [during a hurricane] ... but also it wasn’t good politics,” former Florida Gov. Bob Graham told The Miami Herald. “People responded to candidates who, at a time they were deeply concerned about their families and neighbors’ safety, didn’t want to be bombarded with negative ads.”

“One Result of Hurricane: Bipartisanship Flows.”

That headline from The New York Times seems a relic from a bygone era. Indeed, it’s not a reference to hurricane Michael, the Category 4 storm that slammed into the Florida Panhandle earlier this week and wrought devastation across the southeastern United States.

It dates to Oct. 31, 2012, days before that year’s cliffhanger presidential election. Superstorm Sandy had just struck the New Jersey coast, and the state’s then-governor, Republican Chris Christie, greeted a visiting President Barack Obama warmly. At a joint news conference, Mr. Christie praised their “great working relationship.”

Six years later, on the eve of President Trump’s first midterm elections, such bipartisan comity seems unimaginable. The political stakes are just as high, with control of the House, if likely not the Senate, and numerous governorships on the line. But in Florida, the nation’s biggest political battleground, the massive hurricane has only driven a deeper partisan wedge into tight Senate and governor’s races. Pundits are gaming out political winners and losers, even as search and rescue operations continue.

Earlier this week, as the storm gained force and barreled toward Florida’s Panhandle and Big Bend region, negative ads continued to run in the races for Senate and governor. TV viewers in the storm’s path were treated to a bizarre combination of official warnings about the storm, and then ads slamming those very same officials – Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D), who is running for governor, and Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is running for Senate – as untrustworthy.

The candidates themselves had stopped advertising in the storm zone, but outside groups – and both parties’ state committees – initially did not. Campaign events stopped, but the airwaves stayed alive with political rhetoric. The campaigns of both Mayor Gillum and Governor Scott have sent out “cease and desist” letters ordering Florida TV stations to stop running ads the campaigns say are false.

And so, like so much else in the Trump era, unwritten political norms around natural disasters are fraying or vanishing altogether.

“The tradition in Florida was that it was not only inappropriate to be running negative ads [during a hurricane] ... but also it wasn’t good politics,” former Florida Gov. Bob Graham (D) told The Miami Herald. “People responded to candidates who, at a time they were deeply concerned about their families and neighbors’ safety, didn’t want to be bombarded with negative ads.”

Mr. Trump himself entered the fray when he opted to proceed with a campaign rally Wednesday night in Erie, Pa., just hours after Michael made landfall as the biggest hurricane to hit the Panhandle in recorded history, after saying that morning he might postpone.

“I cannot disappoint the thousands of people that are there” in Erie, the president wrote on Twitter later in the day. At the rally itself, Trump offered prayers to the people in harm’s way and promised a robust government response, plus a visit to Florida soon, before moving on to politics.

Democrats attacked Trump for sticking with the rally, and dug up a Trump tweet from 2012 slamming Mr. Obama for campaigning days after superstorm Sandy.

In Florida, the hurricane could prove to be the “October surprise” that sways just enough votes to determine both the governor and Senate races. The two executives running – Scott and Gillum – have the most to gain or lose, depending on how their performances are judged.

Scott earned high marks for his handling of previous hurricanes during nearly eight years as Florida governor, and a strong performance with hurricane Michael could put him over the top in his battle to unseat three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, analysts say.

“If Scott lives up to his previous standards, it should be political gold,” says Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon polling, who is based in Jacksonville, Fla. “The potential downside, of course, is how long it takes them to clean up, restore power, and get things back to normal.”

For now, Scott is getting lots of “in the field” TV airtime – sleeves rolled up, his signature Navy cap atop his head – allowing him to counter the ads that portrayed him steering contracts to friends after the last hurricane, says political analyst Susan MacManus, retired professor at the University of South Florida, Tampa.

“Plus, being able to delay the debate is helpful to him,” Ms. MacManus says.

The Scott-Nelson debate originally scheduled for Oct. 16 has been delayed two weeks.

In the governor’s race, which will elect the chief executive of the nation’s third largest state – who will preside over legislative redistricting after the 2020 Census – Gillum also has a made-for-TV role as mayor of the state capital. He has been active on the ground, photographed filling sandbags before the storm and videotaped clearing trees with a chainsaw in the aftermath.

On the eve of the storm, Gillum also got the political gift of an attack from Trump, who was trying to help his ally and Gillum's opponent, former Congressman Ron DeSantis. During a TV interview in Orlando Monday, Trump blamed Gillum for Tallahassee’s high crime rate and “tremendous corruption.” (The FBI is investigating corruption in the city’s government, but Gillum says he is not personally under investigation.)

The Trump attack gave Gillum the opportunity to stand up to the president (and Mr. DeSantis), allowing the mayor to portray himself as above partisanship at a time of crisis while in fact landing a neat political punch.

“Hey @realDonaldTrump – don’t come to my state and talk trash about my city while we are preparing for a Category 3 hurricane,” Gillum tweeted. “We need a partner right now, not a partisan.”

Gillum faced criticism for his performance in the last hurricane to hit Tallahassee, and hurricane Michael has given him a chance to overcome those charges. DeSantis resigned his seat in Congress last month to focus on his gubernatorial campaign, and thus has no official platform from which to weigh in on the storm.

Senator Nelson has been on the ground in the storm-affected part of Florida and appearing on cable TV, but doesn’t have a direct role in addressing the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Still, in perhaps the only old-style, bipartisan element of the Florida midterms, Nelson and the state’s other senator, Republican Marco Rubio, have a record of working together to help Florida, and that has not changed in the aftermath of the hurricane. In March, Rubio had said he would not campaign against Nelson.

Nelson, too, has long advocated on the issue of climate change – a matter of special concern to a low-lying state with 1,350 miles of coastline – and activists are calling on the senator to push hard on the issue now, even as residents of the Florida Panhandle dig out. Scott’s environmental record is a matter of fierce debate in Florida, including his support for Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord.

“In Defense of Politicizing Hurricanes,” reads the headline in The New Republic.

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