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Hurricane Michael barrels into Florida races

The Hill logo The Hill 10/12/2018 Max Greenwood
Hurricane Michael barrels into Florida races © The Hill Hurricane Michael barrels into Florida races

"State of the Race" is a regular feature running Fridays exclusively on MSN and at The Hill through the November election.

Hurricane Michael spiraled this week into Florida's closely watched gubernatorial and Senate races, bringing with it a chance for the candidates to make - or break - their hard-fought campaigns.

Gov. Rick Scott (R), who's in the midst of a heated Senate battle against Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is facing a key test of his leadership as he spearheads rescue and recovery efforts.

Nelson is also in the spotlight; it will be up to Congress to decide on a relief package for the devastated state.

In the governor's race, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) is seeking to prove that he can execute an adept disaster response after being plagued for months by Republican attacks over his handling of Hurricane Hermine in 2016. That storm left his city without power for days.

Meanwhile, his opponent, former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), spent the days leading up to hurricane's landfall passing out emergency supplies and soliciting donations for the Florida Disaster Fund.

Gillum and DeSantis are locked in a heated race to replace the term-limited Scott, with most public polls showing the Tallahassee mayor leading by single digits.

For the candidates, the hurricane presents both a political opportunity and a challenge.

A response perceived as successful has the power to raise a candidate's stature and bolster their favorability.

But any missteps could prove politically perilous in a tight race, giving fodder to opponents' attacks and raising questions about their ability to lead.

While natural disasters often yield calls for bipartisanship and temporary ceasefires in otherwise bitter campaigns, there were signs that this year is different.

Breaking with longstanding precedent, political groups continued airing attack ads throughout areas in Michael's path - a practice normally seen as distasteful by members of both parties.

The Florida Republican Party charged ahead with two ads attacking Gillum as the storm hammered the state on Wednesday.

And two super PACS, the Senate Majority PAC and the New Republican PAC, went forward with airing ads going after Scott and Nelson, respectively. Both groups began pulling those ads off the air late Wednesday.

"We can't recall a time where candidates for statewide office have not pulled down negative ads during hurricane season," Gillum said during an appearance on MSNBC on Wednesday. "You've got a whole region of our state, where folks are fleeing for their lives, anticipating what is a life-threatening event impacting this state."

Natural disasters - and hurricanes, in particular - have carried enormous political weight in the past.

The George W. Bush administration's widely panned response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 helped fuel a so-called blue wave in 2006 that saw Democrats retake the majority in the House and gain five seats in the Senate.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), on the other hand, won praise for his handling of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and his subsequent tour of storm damage with then-President Obama.

That boosted his approval ratings and helped him coast to an easy victory in 2013 over Democrat Barbara Buono.

Scott has become a fixture of hurricane preparedness and responses in Florida since he took office in 2010. In the days leading up to Hurricane Michael's landfall, the governor's Senate campaign began airing ads touting his response to Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew in 2016.

But beyond that, Scott has largely paused his campaign while Hurricane Michael played out, a political strategy in and of itself, as he has crisscrossed the panhandle in recent days, meeting with local officials and delivering emergency briefings.

A day after the hurricane made landfall, Scott backed out of a scheduled debate against Nelson set for Tuesday, explaining that he wanted to instead focus on rescue and recovery efforts. CNN, the network set to host the debate, announced soon after that it had agreed to postpone the event after discussing the matter with both campaigns.

"Due to the catastrophic destruction caused by Hurricane Michael, Governor Scott will be solely focused on response and recovery efforts," Jackie Schutz Zeckman, Scott's campaign manager, said in an email Thursday. "Ensuring Florida's Panhandle and Big Bend communities can rebuild and return to their homes and jobs is top priority."

After Hurricane Irma struck the state last year, Scott's favorability rating shot up.

A survey by polling company Mason-Dixon showed that two-thirds of Florida voters rated his handling of the storm as either "excellent" or "good," while another 25 percent said it was "fair." Only 4 percent said they believed his response was "poor," according to the poll.

But he also faced some scrutiny over the deaths of 14 residents at a Hollywood, Fla., nursing home that lost power. State officials said they were not given notice of the danger to the residents.

Scott also has a powerful ally in President Trump. During an appearance in Orlando on Monday, the president said that his administration was prepared to coordinate with Scott as Michael headed toward Florida.

"As Hurricane Michael nears landfall, we are working with state and local officials in Florida to take all necessary precautions and we urge all residents to be prepared and to heed local officials," Trump said at a gathering for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, where he appeared alongside Scott. "I told Rick Scott, 'We are ready for you.' "

But Trump's blessing could also carry political risks for Scott, who has tried throughout his Senate campaign to keep the president at arm's length.

While Scott's response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year were by and large viewed favorably, the Trump administration faced intense scrutiny for its handling of the storms in Puerto Rico.

Appearing too close to Trump could isolate Puerto Rican voters in November that politicians in Florida, including Scott, have been eager to court.

For his part, Nelson has leaned into his role as a sitting senator, joining several other lawmakers in the days before the hurricane struck in urging Trump to declare a state of emergency in several Florida counties in the storm's path.

He's solicited donations for nonprofit relief groups and, on Thursday, toured the wreckage in storm-ravaged areas.

"I'm here to make sure that the federal government is sending all of the resources that it needs and it's going to need a lot," Nelson said in an appearance on CNN, standing amid a backdrop of storm wreckage in Panama City Beach.

Like Scott, Gillum is likely to get the brunt of the attention after Hurricane Michael.

Tallahassee, the city Gillum currently leads, was in the direct path of the storm, and how he handles the immediate recovery efforts are sure to be closely watched, especially after facing criticism over the city's response to Hermine two years earlier.

Before the storm struck, Gillum announced that he would pull his campaign ads from media markets in the hurricane's path.

He posted photos on social media showing him filling sandbags with volunteers. And on Thursday, after the hurricane had moved past Florida, he donned a hard hat and began cutting up downed trees with a chainsaw to clear blocked roads.

Unlike Scott, Nelson and Gillum, DeSantis finds himself without any official responsibilities in the aftermath of the hurricane. He resigned his House seat in September so he could focus on his campaign.

Ahead of the storm, which as of late Friday morning had been blamed for at least 12 deaths across the South, DeSantis said he canceled his fundraisers and changed planned rallies into emergency supply drives.

Since then, he has taken to social media to solicit donations for the Florida Disaster Fund, the state's private fund that distributes money for hurricane relief and recovery efforts.

As Hurricane Michael bore down on the state on Wednesday, DeSantis said his campaign had rented a trailer and was prepared to use it to distribute supplies across northwest Florida after the storm passed.

"Once the storm passes, people get a sense of what's needed on the ground, we'll drive that to wherever in northwest Florida it's needed," he said on Fox News. "I think that's the best way we can help the effort."


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