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Tropical Storm Michael looms over Florida mid-term elections

Any landfall in Florida would have political implications, given that hurricanes can make or break a politician’s reputation and voting is already underway.
Published Oct. 8, 2018
Updated Oct. 8, 2018

A hellish October surprise is looming off Florida's Gulf Coast, threatening to upend some of the country's most important mid-term political races with hurricane-force winds.

Less than a month from election day, Michael is forecast to hit North Florida Wednesday, potentially as a major hurricane. Though the landing spot remained far from certain late Monday as the storm moved north into the Gulf of Mexico, the National Hurricane Center's latest track had Michael striking the Florida Panhandle on a path that could take it right over the Capitol and into the center of the state's elections.

Any landfall in Florida would have implications on the upcoming election. Hurricanes can make or break a politician's reputation and voting is already underway. But a direct pass over Tallahassee would likely have dramatic consequences for both the race for governor and U.S. Senate, which feature the Democratic mayor of the city and the Republican governor of the state, respectively.

"Amazing to think with razor thin margins in FL statewide elections an October hurricane could swing it all …" Republican strategist Anthony Pedicini wrote on Twitter.

Already, the gathering storm has forced Mayor Andrew Gillum and Gov. Rick Scott to focus on the positions they currently hold rather than the ones they're hoping to win in November.

With the storm approaching, Scott issued a state of emergency Sunday for 26 counties and began calling mayors and sheriffs. By Monday afternoon, Scott had expanded the order to 35 counties and asked President Donald Trump to declare an emergency for the state in advance of Michael's arrival. He called more than 1,200 members of the National Guard to duty, with another 4,000 on standby.

Gillum played out his Sunday schedule, attending a South Florida fundraiser with billionaire Michael Bloomberg before flying back home and canceling events planned in South Florida. He spent Monday filling sandbags, and explained during a press conference that the city has asked for between 500 and 600 more linemen, six times what the city's electric utility normally has on staff.

He said the city expects at least 100 linemen to be ready before Michael makes landfall Tuesday night, addressing a chief criticism about the way his city responded to the 2016 storm Hermine, which knocked out power to much of the city. He also said the city has signed mutual aid agreements with private utility companies, something he said did not exist in 2016.

"We broke that wall down following Hermine, where you now get much more quick coordination between the public and the private utilities," Gillum told the press.

Gillum has been criticized for not accepting help from Florida Power and Light utility crews after Hermine.

Though the decision was actually made by the city's utilities director, and Tallahassee's weak mayor has no official administrative duties, Gillum remains the face of the city. And he participated in meetings coordinating the 2016 response — efforts that have become the subject of attack ads that suggest he played politics with the storm recovery as families waited for help.

As Gillum prepared his city for the oncoming storm, his supporters, including Tampa-area congressman and former governor Charlie Crist, have pressured GOP nominee Ron DeSantis to pull the ads. Gillum's campaign said it was sending out orders to suspend TV commercials from Pensacola to Gainesville.

Meanwhile, bad blood not withstanding, Gillum and Scott have discussed preparations for Michael. Both candidates spent Monday assuring the press that crews were on standby, and that the city and state were ready.

Scott made passing reference to the disputes that arose after Hermine during a Sunday evening press briefing. He urged local governments to review their resources, supplies and mutual aid agreements for utility assistance, "so there is no delay in power restoration for all Floridians."

"Two years ago, I asked for these agreements to be put in place because mutual aid agreements are critical," he added, hinting at Hermine's fallout. "They establish resources in advance."
When asked about his call with Gillum, Scott said his job "is to work with everyone around the state" and that he had reached out to several sheriffs and mayors. "My expectation is everybody take the time to get prepared."

Scott's own hurricane nightmare — an episode during which 12 seniors died at a Hollywood nursing home that tried to call the governor on his cellphone after the power went out for days — hasn't surfaced in his campaign against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Instead, the governor's supporters note how well the governor fared in public opinion following the hurricanes of the last two years, a more typical reaction to government executives during and following natural disasters.

Changing forecasts late Monday afternoon shifted the storm's track west, potentially sparing Tallahassee the worst of the storm. But the state announced it would still prepare for a Category 4 storm. And DeSantis' campaign said that Panhandle campaign staff had been redirected to focus on helping their communities ahead of the storm.

Press secretary Dave Vasquez issued a statement praising Scott's leadership during past hurricanes, and said DeSantis trusted that Scott would help prepare the region.

"We will continue to monitor the storm and will determine how the campaign can be of the most help to those preparing for the storm and will be impacted in the coming days," Vasquez said.