Before Hurricane Michael's 155-mile-per-hour winds blasted the Florida Panhandle Wednesday afternoon and eventually knocked out the power to thousands of households, scores of voters watching TV for news of the approaching hurricane were also presented with dark and stormy ads about statewide political candidates.
Breaking what politicians claim is an unwritten rule of campaign decorum, Democrats and Republicans alike continued running attacks on their opponents despite the oncoming storm. That meant hundreds of thousands of people in the storm's path spent the morning receiving updates and cautions from Gov. Rick Scott and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum only to immediately receive information during commercial breaks from anonymous narrators explaining that the men — who are seeking new offices — are in fact not to be trusted.
None of the campaigns involved in the race were directly responsible for the commercials, one of which called Gillum "corrupt" and another that called Scott "another shady millionaire who doesn't look out for you." But the two officials were quick to condemn their opponents, leading to finger-pointing and squabbling amid an unprecedented natural disaster.
"My opponent has decided to leave all of his negative advertising up all the way across the Panhandle including right here where we're preparing our citizens for a Category 4 hurricane impact," Gillum said about GOP nominee Ron DeSantis during a morning interview on MSNBC. "Those news alerts are obviously on commercial breaks being intermittently interrupted by negative campaign ads that are untrue. I think that's unfortunate. We can't recall a time where candidates for statewide office have not pulled down negative ads during hurricane season."
The back-and-forth over campaign ads has been ongoing for days and illustrates the stakes involved in hurricane politics. Elected executives like Gillum and Scott gained days of valuable media exposure due to their rolls in storm preparations while former congressman DeSantis and incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson stood on the outside looking in — with Nelson literally being kept out of an emergency managers meeting Monday in Tallahassee.
While the subtle politicking of disaster management is deemed acceptable, the overt politics of campaign messaging is not.
"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," said former Democratic governor Bob Graham. "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."
"Campaigns should shut down the ads in the impacted areas," agreed former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. "The exclusive focus needs to be on preparing, rescuing and recovering."
The sniping started immediately Sunday, as soon as forecasts made it clear that Hurricane Michael was likely heading straight for the Florida Panhandle, and would also result in some kind of a strike on the state capital. The Republican Party of Florida was still airing ads criticizing Gillum's response to Hurricane Hermine in 2016, and Democrats, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, called on DeSantis and state Republicans to take their spots down.
Gilum's campaign said Sunday night that it was taking down its commercials from Pensacola to Gainesville.
At the time, no one knew how strong the storm would actually be. Forecasts predicted that Michael might grow to Category 2. It became a Category 4, and the strongest hurricane to hit the Panhandle when it struck near Panama City at about 1 p.m.
DeSantis, appearing Wednesday at an event in Tampa, brushed off a question about the appropriateness of his attack ads. "You run your campaign the way you run your campaign. It is what it is," he said, alluding to the fact that television time is generally purchased in blocs and weeks in advance. "We've had all this planned out long before and we're going to stick with our plan so people will see that unfold in the next day or two."
A Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman initially said Wednesday morning that the Hermine ads attacking Gillum had stopped running in areas affected by the storm, but later said they "were being cycled out" after a reporter pointed out that people had seen the spot that morning in Tallahassee. The spokeswoman, Meredith Beatrice, also said Wednesday that the spots ripping Gillum's ties to an FBI investigation of Tallahassee's community redevelopment agency were likewise being pulled from the air.
Meanwhile Scott's campaign lashed out at Nelson, pointing out that Senate Majority PAC, a political committee backing Nelson's reelection bid, was still running negative commercials blasting Scott's two terms as Florida governor. Campaign spokesman Chris Hartline called the commercial "false" and "dangerous."
"Governor Scott is the leader of the state of Florida. The people of Florida rely on him for accurate information about the path of the storm and federal, state and local efforts. It's offensive and, quite honestly dangerous, that Bill Nelson and his out of state allies would run their false, negative ads while Rick Scott is warning the millions of Floridians in the path of Hurricane Michael to evacuate or shelter in place." said Hartline. "Now is not the time for politics."
Reached by phone, a spokesman for New Majority PAC said the political committee decided to keep its ads up in North Florida after realizing that New Republican PAC, which is supporting Scott, was still airing its ads attacking Nelson. Attempts to reach someone at New Republican PAC were unsuccessful.
Due to federal rules, neither candidate can coordinate with a Super PAC, which Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin noted in an interview when asked if Nelson would try to convince the PAC to take down its ads. McLaughlin said Nelson's campaign handled messaging that it could control by instructing television stations in all the affected media markets to take his advertising down ahead of the storm. On the other hand, McLaughlin said his family in Tallahassee told him they saw a positive Rick Scott ad Tuesday night promoting his leadership during recent hurricanes.
"What you have is Rick Scott playing politics here right in the middle of a dangerous storm," McLaughlin said. "This is a classic case of Rick Scott making up something that someone else is supposedly doing when he's doing it himself.. I find it pathetic that he's doing it himself."
McLaughlin said he hadn't spoken to Nelson, but personally believes that "political advertising in the middle of a storm is inappropriate." Hartline didn't directly respond when asked if Scott's campaign disavows all negative advertising in hurricane zones.
While it's unclear how Scott feels on that point, his predecessors have been explicit in calling on campaigns for civility during the hurricane. Crist, who was a Republican when he served as governor from 2006 to 2010, was among the Democrats arguing Sunday that negative commercials should stop as the state braced for the storm. And Graham said he was surprised that there would be any attacks right now as Michael pounds the Panhandle and Big Bend.
"I don't know what has caused a political campaign or party to feel that no longer is the environment which has to be understood and respected around a major disaster," said Graham. "I'm surprised it's happening."
Times Political Editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.