Hurricane threat is political opportunity for Florida’s Scott

Florida Governor Rick Scott at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, U.S., February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Colin Hackley

(Reuters) – As Hurricane Michael bears down on Florida, the state’s candidates for U.S. Senate and governor called a timeout on campaigning, a move that may pay political dividends for Governor Rick Scott.

Despite being off the campaign trail, Scott will be a near-constant presence on television as the storm approaches, updating residents on the state’s preparations and burnishing his image as a crisis manager weeks before the Nov. 6 election, when he will seek to unseat Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson.

The virtually tied race is one of a handful that will determine control of the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow 51-49 advantage.

Scott, who is prevented by state law from seeking a third term as governor, had already placed his response to previous hurricanes at the centre of his campaign, with an advertisement highlighting his response to three hurricanes that hit the state in 2016 and 2017.

“Politically, this is a good thing for Rick Scott,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Jacksonville, Florida-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy. “If history is any guide, he’ll get a bump.”

Coker noted that Scott’s approval ratings had never reached 50 percent, even when he won reelection in 2014, until Hurricane Matthew threatened Florida in October 2016.

Officials ordered tens of thousands of people to evacuate coastal areas of some 20 counties ahead of the major storm, due to hit midday on Wednesday.

Nelson travelled to the state’s northwestern region in the storm’s path on Monday to discuss federal preparations. But his rivalry with Scott makes it unlikely the governor would involve the Democrat in public events.

Natural disasters can hurt officeholders too, if their leadership is seen as inadequate or insensitive. President George W. Bush came under fire for his handling of Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 1,800 people in 2005, while President Donald Trump has brushed off criticism of the federal response to Hurricane Maria, which killed an estimated 3,000 in Puerto Rico last year.

“Unusual and difficult events give politicians an opportunity to demonstrate competency and compassion,” said Kevin Wagner, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University. “They also give them an opportunity to fail.”

SECOND CHANCE FOR GILLUM?

The storm could also allow one of the candidates seeking to succeed Scott to show whether he can handle storms. Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has been targeted by the state Republican party in recent days for his response to Hurricane Hermine in 2016, when the city suffered from lengthy power outages.

With his city squarely in Matthew’s expected path, Gillum, who is running against Republican U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis, will have a chance to change that narrative.

“It’s a double-edged sword for Gillum,” Coker said. “To the extent that it might remind people of Hermine, it probably doesn’t help him much.”

If he wins, Gillum would become Florida’s first black governor.

The two parties have already traded accusations of politicizing the hurricane.

On Tuesday, the state Democratic Party sued state officials, arguing that a limited one-day extension for some counties in the path of the storm should be lengthened to a full week for the entire state.

In response, state Republican Party Chairman Blaise Ingoglia called the lawsuit a “reprehensible” effort to give residents in Democratic areas hundreds of miles from the storm extra time to register.

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