In Florida, Hurricanes Bring Out Political Theater

Oct 16, 2018

In the days leading up to Hurricane Michael’s landfall, Gov. Rick Scott did what any Florida governor would do: warn people. After the storm passed, Scott shifted from warnings to gravitas.

But his appearances were more significant than previous storm responses (Michael is the fourth hurricane Scott has had to respond to in his eight years as governor). 

With elections just under three weeks away in Florida, candidates – especially those for governor and U.S. Senate – know that voters could cast their ballots based on how candidates responded to the storm.

The day before Hurricane Michael approached the Panhandle, Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate, got more than 5,800 mentions on TV, according to Politico

That was ten times more than his opponent, Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson; Nelson tried to keep up, making appearances on CNN and PBS NewsHour.

“Now’s not the time to talk about politics," Nelson said on PBS NewsHour. "Now is the time to talk about getting people made whole again.”

(Above) Gov. Rick Scott's campaign released a new ad Tuesday, a day after he said he'd be taking a break from campaigning. (Below) A Democratic super PAC ran an ad attacking Scott.
Credit Screenshots

According to Politico, super PACs that backed both Scott and Nelson ran negative campaign ads in areas that were bracing for Michael.

Scott got the better bargain, says columnist Diane Roberts, who wrote a piece about the politics of hurricanes for the Washington Post.

“He got the free media because he is the governor of the state,” she said. “It’s cheaper than buying a campaign ad.”

Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor, benefited from free media, too. He was seen across the news filling sandbags in the days before the hurricane.

Unlike Gillum, Scott and Nelson, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis no longer holds elected office.

On Fox News, DeSantis said he converted scheduled campaign events into supply drives.

And while Hurricane Michael was barreling toward the Panhandle, the Republican Party ran an ad criticizing Gillum’s response to Hurricane Hermine in 2016.

“My opponent has decided to leave all his negative advertising up, all the way across the Panhandle, including right here where we are preparing our citizens for a Category 4 hurricane impact,” Gillum said on MSNBC. “I again would encourage my opponent to subside with the politics.”

Gillum’s campaign later responded with its own ad

At an event in Tampa, reporters asked DeSantis about the Republican Party’s ad.

“You run your campaign the way you run your campaign. It is what it is,” he said.

Meredith Beatrice, a Republican Party spokeswoman, tweeted thay the party had ordered the ads taken down in places affected by the storm.

Races for governor and U.S. Senate were both supposed to have debates this week. They were canceled to focus on hurricane recovery efforts.

Scott's wife Ann will stump in his place over the next few weeks. It’s unclear if he’ll be seen at any campaign events before the Nov. 6 election.

On Tuesday, Scott’s campaign tweeted a new ad, which attacks Nelson while praising the Republican's leadership in the aftermath of Michael. The ad was released a day after Scott said he'd be taking a break from campaigning.