Hurricane Michael, and the federal and state response to the disaster, could determine the outcome of Florida’s hotly contested Senate race as Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), one of the chamber’s most vulnerable Democrats, and Gov. Rick Scott (R) battle to take political credit for the relief effort.
The storm gives Nelson and Scott an opportunity to play leadership roles on television as stricken residents of Florida’s panhandle look for the government’s help in putting their lives back together.
But failure to deliver — or the appearance of falling short — could hurt either or both candidates as the campaign enters its final stretch.
“It’s a big deal,” said Alex Patton, a Florida-based GOP consultant. “It’s a highly emotional time. Most Floridians relate to it.”
“It’s a ton of free airtime during a very emotional time. You can look like, talk like and be a leader,” he added. “People remember this stuff.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who is the mayor of Tallahassee, has been interviewed the most on television in recent days, according to consultants in the state, which is likely to help his campaign for governor.
Scott, as sitting governor, also has had a lot of free airtime while Nelson, who was in Washington voting until Wednesday, has received less. But Democrats say being on television the most isn’t necessarily helpful if voters are disappointed with the relief efforts.
“There’s certainly an advantage to put on that government-issued polo shirt and windbreaker and stand behind the podium and tell people you care about the safety of their families but there are two sides to it,” said Ben Pollara, a Florida-based Democratic consultant and fundraiser.
Pollara noted that Scott came under criticism after Hurricane Irma when he did not quickly respond to messages asking for help left on his cellphone by employees at a nursing home where 14 senior citizens eventually died because of bad conditions.
“It’s probably been a net positive for Rick Scott and Andrew Gillum this week as the rest of the political world shuts down and they’re on TV every day looking like strong leaders but I think it’s premature to say that this will be defining moment in the campaign not knowing yet how the storm will ultimately be defined politically,” Pollara said.
Democrats say Nelson, who leads Scott by a couple of points in recent polls, could score big political points by securing a promise soon from Republicans for significant aid to Florida’s battered panhandle.
“He desperately needs this,” a Democratic aide said of Nelson. “He needs something good to come out of this.”
Senate Democrats increasingly see Nelson as their most vulnerable incumbent after Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who has fallen behind her challenger by an average of 9 points in recent polls.
Nelson missed votes Thursday as he traveled to Florida to help his constituents deal with the storm’s aftermath.