How Hurricane Michael crashed Florida’s political season

The Category 4 hurricane last week disrupted two of the nation’s most consequential races— Florida governor, U.S. Senate.
An American flag is displayed using sandbags in the coastal township of Mexico Beach, population 1200, which lay devastated on Friday. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
An American flag is displayed using sandbags in the coastal township of Mexico Beach, population 1200, which lay devastated on Friday. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Oct. 16, 2018

Gov. Rick Scott announced on Monday a personal break from campaign events in his bid for the U.S. Senate due to Hurricane Michael, the latest political fallout from the powerful storm's destructive pass through the Florida Panhandle.

But the Scott campaign will move forward without the candidate. Even the announcement of Scott's time out didn't miss an opportunity to call his rival, Democrat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a "walking advertisement for term limits." Nelson's team responded by asserting that the put-down is proof Scott continues to campaign.

The Category 4 hurricane last week disrupted two of the nation's most consequential races— Florida governor, U.S. Senate — by forcing strategists to balance the need to exhibit competence and empathy in the face of a crisis with the need to woo voters in a hard-fought campaign.

Republican strategist Justin Sayfie said helping with rescue and recovery efforts should be the top priority for public officials, but he acknowledged the storm of this magnitude has remade this election's politics.

"I don't know if it's ever going to be tasteful to talk politics in the western Panhandle region of the state before the election," Sayfie said.

The storm already postponed Tuesday's scheduled debate between Scott and Nelson. This weekend, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor, said he would skip Tuesday's highly-anticipated gubernatorial debate against Republican Ron DeSantis to focus on recovery in state capital, which endured power outages.

Scott and Gillum have found ways to campaign by surrogate. Scott enlisted his wife, First Lady Ann Scott, to stump in his place. On Monday, Gillum's running mate, Chris King, stopped in Tampa to criticize DeSantis for lacking a health care proposal.

And despite their supposed sabbaticals, Scott and Gillum have enjoyed media exposure that would be the envy of any campaign.

From the moment Hurricane Michael formed, Scott was constantly in front of television cameras. He gave frequent updates from the emergency operations center for local reporters and to national cable networks. And he has remained in the limelight after, from surveying damage with President Donald Trump on Monday to welcoming first responders to sleep in the governor's mansion.

Gillum has jumped from event to event and functioned as the city's spokesman. Before the storm, he filled and delivered sandbags, visited shelters, gave news conferences and made more than a dozen appearances on national television.

On Thursday, after the storm hit, he began the day by giving an interview with a national radio program. Then it was a morning briefing with the county's emergency management, meeting with electric line workers around the city, speaking with the governor, then doing four more national TV appearances.

That was all before 1 p.m.

Then he spent an hour in the afternoon wielding a chainsaw issued by the city, slicing up downed tree branches on an empty road 10 minutes from the Capitol. No one was there besides his city chief of staff, an aide, a reporter and a cameraman working for his campaign for governor.

As he wiped his head with a towel, Gillum dismissed the idea that he was posturing for his campaign. He lamented: "They're with me all the time, unfortunately."

He added, "I don't believe we'll put this on television."

Absent campaign events, Nelson and DeSantis have been forced compete for attention. Nelson toured Tyndall Air Force Base on Sunday morning to witness firsthand the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael. He vowed Congress would pay to rebuild it.

DeSantis, who quit his job as a congressman in August, went on Fox News Wednesday and was asked about polls that show him trailing Gillum.

"(In) these elections, people start to focus, I think, around this time," he said. "We're going to be able to get on the debate stage together very soon."

But DeSantis' hopes were dashed Sunday when Gillum canceled Tuesday's Telemundo debate in Orlando.

DeSantis skipped previously-scheduled fundraisers and converted three stump speeches into hurricane relief drives, where his campaign collected two U-Haul trucks of water, food, diapers, and other necessities to be delivered to the Panhandle.

But despite their promises to remove anti-Gillum attack ads during the storm, the Republican Party only partially succeeded in getting ads in the storm-affected areas taken down, according to Politico Florida, while the Democrats' attack ads went dark in the Panhandle.

By Monday, DeSantis was back on the trail, at a Miami campaign event with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Times/Herald reporters Emily Mahoney, Lawrence Mower and Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.