Hurricane Ian puts pause on Florida midterm politics and DeSantis, Biden tension

The threat posed by the natural disaster has ushered in a forced detente.
In this July 1, 2021, photo, President Joe Biden, right, looks at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, during a briefing with first responders and local officials in Miami on the condo tower that collapsed in Surfside.
In this July 1, 2021, photo, President Joe Biden, right, looks at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, during a briefing with first responders and local officials in Miami on the condo tower that collapsed in Surfside. [ SUSAN WALSH | AP ]
Published Sept. 27, 2022|Updated Sept. 28, 2022

With six weeks to go until Election Day and mail ballots already on their way to overseas voters, a major hurricane threatening vulnerable regions in the Gulf Coast of Florida has all but halted politics-as-usual in the state.

Hurricane Ian’s approach tamed weeks of political tensions between President Joe Biden and Gov. Ron DeSantis, caused campaigns to pull their commercials and derailed political events, including what would have been the president’s second visit to South Florida since his inauguration.

Where acrimony and finger-pointing once existed, the threat posed by Ian ushered in a forced detente.

“It’s about the people of Florida,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday. “It’s not about public officials, especially in this time.”

Just days earlier, DeSantis and the White House were engaged in a back-and-forth over the governor’s decision to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, and what appeared to be an aborted move to fly more to Biden’s home state of Delaware. But by the weekend, both leaders refrained from drawing attention to their differences and their administrations appeared to be cooperating, even as they had yet to speak about the hurricane as of Tuesday afternoon.

After a day of questions about whether either had reached out to the other, the two spoke on the phone on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. and “committed to continued close coordination,” Jean-Pierre said in a Tweet. DeSantis left the door open for a call from the president earlier Tuesday.

“I’m happy to brief the president if he’s interested in hearing what we’re doing in Florida,” DeSantis said during a briefing in Tallahassee. “My view on all of this is like, you’ve got people’s lives at stake, you’ve got their property at stake and we don’t have time for pettiness. We gotta work together to make sure we’re doing the best job for them. So my phone line is open.”

The cooling of tensions was indicative of the hurricane’s effect on politics across the state at a time when campaigns are normally ramping up their activity and rhetoric, preparing for the release of millions of mail ballots to voters in-state.

Biden himself canceled appearances scheduled for Tuesday in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

Democrats Charlie Crist and U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who are running to unseat DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, canceled their own appearances in South Florida and announced they would be pulling TV ads in the Tampa-Fort Myers media markets, where the storm’s effects are forecast to be most severe. And after initially saying she would skip Biden’s Orlando rally in her hometown to go to Washington, Demings’ office said she instead stayed in Orlando and spent most of Tuesday at sandbag distribution locations in Orange County.

Related: Charlie Crist suspends some Florida political ads as Hurricane Ian nears

Rubio’s campaign postponed a Homestead event on Monday, but did not plan to cancel or alter any political ads planned for the state this week, one campaign official said. The official stressed that the campaign is continuing to evaluate the situation. The campaign has reserved about $1.5 million in ads across TV and radio stations in the state this week, according to a source tracking political spending in the state.

The DeSantis campaign did not respond to questions about whether they were pulling any TV ads or canceling campaign events slated to take place this week.

Disaster politics

Over the past few years, Biden and DeSantis administration officials have not shied away from criticizing the other. Biden has criticized the Florida governor for, he says, his politicization of the Florida Department of Health and vaccine skepticism during the coronavirus pandemic, his attacks on Disney and endorsement of anti-LGBTQ laws, and his recent use of migrants as “political pawns” with transport flights from Texas to Massachusetts.

“When it comes to extremism — when it comes to behaviors that are inhumane and cruel — that is what we’re seeing from Governor DeSantis,” Jean-Pierre said Friday. “He is using families, children and women as a political ploy, as a political stunt. We will continue to call that out.”

But Ian, which was projected to make landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, appeared to be enough of a threat to push aside political spats and campaign rhetoric. And by Monday, Jean-Pierre struck a different tone, saying that the president has an obligation to support any state — whether it be red or blue — facing extreme weather events and suggesting that criticism of the Florida governor was on pause.

Biden signed a disaster declaration for Florida, unlocking federal assistance for the state nearly five days before the storm was projected to make landfall. White House officials told Herald/McClatchy that Federal Emergency Management Agency leadership had been coordinating with DeSantis’ office since the order was signed.

“We appreciate it, we’re thankful,” DeSantis said on Sunday, offering rare kind words for the Biden administration after the president signed the disaster declaration for Florida. “They stand by ready to help so we appreciate that quick action.”

The two politicians have shown a willingness to work together before. The last time Biden was in Florida was in July 2021, after 98 people were killed in a building collapse in Surfside. He sat next to DeSantis, as he pledged assistance from the federal government to respond to the emergency.

Related: DeSantis parts with Trump in response to Surfside tragedy

DeSantis said federal officials were embedded with the state and have been in close communication. Biden, meanwhile, announced earlier on Tuesday that he had calls with three mayors in Florida from St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa.

Related: Hurricane Ian update: President Biden calls Tampa Bay mayors to talk planning

“I told each one of them in my conversations separately, whatever they need — I mean this sincerely — whatever they need, contact directly. And they know how to do that. I have a lot of personnel down there already. We’re here to support them in every way we can,” Biden said on Tuesday.

Ashley Walker, a veteran Democratic political consultant based in South Florida, said that politics doesn’t stop during a hurricane, it just changes its presence. While all the messaging campaigns have worked hard to promote fades away during a storm, current officeholders leading recovery efforts will be in the spotlight.

“I hate to call any hurricane an opportunity, but I think for incumbents a hurricane tests their leadership and those leaders that do well and guide government resources in an effective way do typically see a bump,” she said. “How Gov. DeSantis conducts himself and how well the state response time will be, he’ll rise and he’ll fall with that.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, a Democrat, spoke at a news conference on Monday in Largo alongside DeSantis and other local and state leaders, all of them emphasizing the serious threat posed by Hurricane Ian.

Welch’s presence at the event marked a departure from DeSantis’ past treatment of the St. Petersburg mayor’s office.

Former Democratic mayor Rick Kriseman, who held the position until January of this year, has often said that he never once spoke to DeSantis during their years of simultaneous service, even when the city faced the onslaught of toxic Red Tide that wiped out thousands of fish and marine animals. Kriseman and DeSantis publicly traded barbs during that 2021 crisis with each man accusing the other of politicizing Red Tide, after Kriseman and the City Council unsuccessfully asked the governor to declare a state of emergency.

Kriseman, who now works at a lobbying firm, said he’s not optimistic politics is staying out of storm preparation.

“I wish I wasn’t saying it because I wish it wasn’t true, but if the governor wasn’t running for reelection I don’t know if we’d have seen him in St. Pete or Pinellas County. But he’s up for reelection so he wants to look gubernatorial,” Kriseman said.

In a statement, Welch said that Hurricane Ian “knows no party line and it’s imperative we put the safety and welfare of our residents above all else.” According to a spokesperson, the governor’s office called to invite Welch to Monday’s news conference.

“We welcome the resources and leadership at all levels to ensure swift recovery,” Welch said.

Deanne Criswell, FEMA’s administrator, on Tuesday repeatedly denied that politics was affecting her agency’s efforts to coordinate with local and state officials, saying that communication among all the government entities was “excellent.”

“We are very focused on what the needs of Florida is right now,” the agency head told reporters during a White House press briefing. “We don’t bring politics into our ability to respond to these disasters.”

Criswell, who was in Miami on Monday, said one of FEMA’s regional administrators, Gracia Szczech, is embedded with the state emergency management agency now, ready to coordinate response and recovery efforts.

“We have a long relationship with Florida,” she said.

Criswell was with Biden on Tuesday in the Oval Office when the president called the Florida mayors to pledge assistance from the federal government in weathering and recovering from the hurricane.

Asked repeatedly about the lack of direct communication between Biden and the governor earlier in the day, Criswell emphasized that federal and state officials were coordinating without incident ahead of the storm.

“We are going to support whatever Governor DeSantis asks of us,” Criswell said.

• • •

2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

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• • •

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