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Post-Hurricane Ian, Florida midterm politics come roaring back

The midterm election is just over a month away.
Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a news conference last week at the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center in Largo as Florida awaits Hurricane Ian's arrival. By the middle of this week, many of the state’s political strategists say they expect campaigns to be back in full swing.
Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a news conference last week at the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center in Largo as Florida awaits Hurricane Ian's arrival. By the middle of this week, many of the state’s political strategists say they expect campaigns to be back in full swing. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 4|Updated Oct. 4

Even one of the state’s worst natural disasters couldn’t keep politics at bay for long in Florida.

Less than a week after Hurricane Ian devastated parts of the state’s southwest coast and flooded its central region, many Florida campaigns are roaring back to life this week, eager to resume politicking just days after many candidates were more focused on helping affected residents survive and recover from the storm.

And increasingly, they’re comfortable using the hurricane — and public officials’ response to it — as part of their effort, with little more than a month to go before Election Day and mail-ballot voting already underway.

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

“Gov. (Ron) DeSantis would rather play politics than do the job he was elected to do,” Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist said in a statement Monday, criticizing what he said was the incumbent Republican’s decision to prioritize a photo opportunity in Arcadia over delivering aid to storm-affected residents.

It was just one of many statements released in the last 48 hours that have targeted candidates up and down the ballot, including nominees in the state’s closely watched gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests.

Even Vice President Kamala Harris — who made statements about the hurricane recovery effort — received criticism from the DeSantis campaign over the weekend, marking the beginning of an end to an unofficial detente between the governor and White House reached shortly before the hurricane struck Southwest Florida last week.

Not all facets of the political scene are back to normal yet: DeSantis — alongside first lady Casey DeSantis — is still visiting areas affected by Hurricane Ian, meeting with first responders and holding news conferences in hard-hit neighborhoods. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has spent the past few days meeting with local officials, including in Charlotte and DeSoto counties, while U.S. Rep. Val Demings, whose district includes Orlando, toured heavily flooded neighborhoods throughout Central Florida.

And President Joe Biden will visit the state Wednesday in what his aides emphasize will be a nonpolitical trip, putting aside his rivalry with DeSantis to focus on how best to help Florida recover.

But even by the middle of this week, many of the state’s political strategists say they expect campaigns to be back in full swing.

Similar to Hurricane Michael in 2018, which hit the Florida Panhandle and caused widespread devastation just weeks before the midterm election, long recovery efforts are likely to be folded into regular campaign programming.

“Obviously, we’re in a political season. The election is less than 40 days away,” said Jared Moskowitz, a Democratic congressional candidate and former director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “And so it shouldn’t be news that politics from both sides are going to get injected into the conversation.”

‘Equity’ argument

Even before last week ended, Florida Republicans began to criticize a portion of a Harris interview in which she suggested that long-term recovery efforts — both from Hurricane Ian and natural disasters more generally — need to invest more in poor communities and communities of color to help make them more resilient against future storms and other destructive events.

“We have to address this in a way that is about giving resources based on equity,” Harris said Friday, speaking at the Women’s Leadership Forum Conference in Washington. “Understanding that we fight for equality, but we also need to fight for equity; understanding that not everyone starts out at the same place. And if we want people to be in an equal place, sometimes we have to take into account those disparities and do that work.”

Republican Sen. Rick Scott called the remarks “wrong and dangerous,” tweeting that Harris was “trying to use race to divide us.”

A White House official disputed that characterization Monday.

“The vice president was clearly talking about long-term investment, not FEMA aid for hurricane response efforts,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. “The vice president and the president have been clear that the federal government has been and will continue to be there for all Americans recovering from these devastating storms.”

During her briefing with reporters, Jean-Pierre continued to praise the cooperation and coordination between federal and state recovery efforts in Florida, emphasizing how many times Biden and DeSantis have spoken on the telephone ahead of Wednesday’s visit to the state and repeating the administration’s desire to rise above politics to do what’s best for Floridians.

Related: Ian turned, southwest Florida scrambled. Was there enough time to leave?

Other Democrats have been less reluctant to criticize aspects of the state’s response, including the timing of evacuation orders to some parts of Florida’s southwest coastline that would be hardest hit by Hurricane Ian. On Monday, Demings called for an emergency session in the Florida Legislature to respond to the worsening property insurance crisis in Florida, where this year alone six property insurers have become insolvent.

Related: What Hurricane Ian could mean to Florida's struggling property insurance industry

“Short-term patches and Band-Aids during election years are not sufficient to protect Florida’s homeowners,” Demings said in a statement Monday. “I call on the governor and state Legislature to hold an emergency session to implement state-level reforms to stand up for Florida families.”

She also has capitalized on attacks against Rubio after he said over the weekend he would oppose a hurricane aid bill if it was loaded “with stuff unrelated to the storm.” Rubio’s campaign, in response, accused Demings of being “totally game to pack Hurricane Ian relief with unrelated items if it creates an opportunity to push her radical agenda.”

Will it matter?

Political strategists express an ambivalence about whether Hurricane Ian and its aftermath would affect November’s election.

Before the storm, both DeSantis and Rubio held significant leads in their respective campaigns, according to recent polling.

A Mason-Dixon survey released Tuesday found Rubio holding a 6-point edge on Demings, 47% to 41%, with 10% of voters undecided.

A Spectrum News/Siena College poll released earlier this week found DeSantis held an 8-point advantage over Crist, 49% to 41%.

The storm is likely to change elements of the political conversation surrounding their campaigns, strategists say, elevating issues like climate change or a candidate’s ability to respond to a crisis.

Whether it sways many voters is another matter.

“If there’s a major change in the race that would favor Democrats, it would have to be now,” said Mike Hernández — political analyst for Telemundo 51 in South Florida — emphasizing that recent polls have continued to look favorable for the Republican incumbents DeSantis and Rubio.

And, as of right now, Hernández doesn’t think the storm has made a dent in those numbers.

“It just always seems that when you have an election in Florida, there’s always a hurricane that’s about to hit,” Hernández said.

Much like Hurricane Michael in 2018, he said, the weeks leading up to Election Day have featured a “powerful storm, long recovery efforts, bickering in Washington and no solution to Florida’s property insurance crisis.”

“It seems that every hurricane, we talk about it, we talk about it, and then it seems that nothing gets fixed,” he said.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.

THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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