Hurricane plays havoc with election season in state
News-Journal (Daytona Beach, FL)
TALLAHASSEE – Hurricane Ian is playing havoc with political season in Florida, prompting at least a temporary pause in the state's high-stakes governor's race,U.S. Senate campaign and scores of other contests.
President Biden's swing Tuesday through Fort Lauderdale and Orlando was postponed over the weekend and Florida candidates quickly dropped planned events and pivoted their social media sites toward urging hurricane preparation.
But campaigns getting knocked off course by major storms is becoming a familiar disruption in the Sunshine State.
Four years ago, Category 5 Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida Panhandle a month before Election Day. And its impact may have played a role in the outcome of some contests when voters finally went to the polls.
It was the first time in Florida history that three statewide elections resulted in recounts, for governor, U.S. senator and the Cabinet post of agriculture commissioner.
Then-Gov. Rick Scott, who was running for U.S. Senate against three-term incumbent, Democrat Bill Nelson, dominated the state's airwaves before Michael's landfall and later, spent days touring battered Panhandle communities, holding briefings and doing TV interviews.
Nelson had to play a secondary role, compared to the hands-on governor who was coordinating relief efforts. Following the storm, a statewide television debate between the candidates also was canceled.
Similarly, during that Michael-scarred, 2018 election season, Republican Ron DeSantis, then a recently resigned congressman facing off against Democrat Andrew Gillum, was left largely in the position of trying to stay busy by helping deliver supplies to storm-ravaged areas.
DeSantis, though, has his election-year storm moment now. And how a state handles a hurricane and its aftermath can not only affect election results, it can set a chief executive's image for months, maybe years to come.
Not all politics has gone dark
DeSantis' opponent in November, Democrat Charlie Crist, this week managed to keep up some campaign politicking, calling his rival the "worst property insurance governor in Florida history," citing the thousands of Floridians who have lost homeowners insurance or have seen their rates soar in the past year.
Crist is demanding that DeSantis provide emergency, 90-day property insurance coverage for homeowners dropped by companies.
The governor earlier called a special session of the Legislature to enact industry-friendly changes that so far have failed to stem the retreat of insurers from Florida — moves that Hurricane Ian might accelerate.
"This is not going to be good for the insurance industry," said Dr. Chuck Nyce, who teaches insurance and risk management at Florida State University. "You're looking at a lot of companies that have lost a lot of money the last couple of years. None of them, I'd argue are in a strong financial position, compared to what they were a few years ago."
DeSantis has had to brace for only one hurricane as governor — Hurricane Dorian, which ultimately stayed away from the state but caused major destruction in the nearby Bahamas.
Hurricane Sally in 2020 made landfall in Alabama, leaving severe damage in Pensacola and neighboring communities in its aftermath.
But it was 2019's Dorian that saw DeSantis, just as his predecessors as governor had done — morph into the symbol of state government's readiness and anticipated response.
Wearing a blue windbreaker and concerned look, DeSantis, like he is now with Ian, was a regular presence at the state's Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. He also later directed Florida aid to the Bahamas.
When hurricanes and elections mix
But while Hurricane Michael was considered the first major hurricane since 1960 to strike Florida during a governor's race, hurricanes have played havoc with U.S. Senate and presidential contests before.
The 2004 election season coincided with four late-summer and early fall hurricanes hitting Florida, drawing President George W. Bush to Florida, where then-Gov. Jeb Bush encouraged him to roll up his sleeves and join him in distributing ice to victims.
The president's rival, Democrat John Kerry, tried to appear sympathetic and free from partisanship when it came to responding to storm damage.
But for the Bush brothers, the disaster response stemmed from family history — with father, President George H.W. Bush having been ridiculed for a slow, federal response to 1992's Hurricane Andrew.
The White House was targeted that year by an exasperated Kate Hale, director of Miami-Dade County's emergency operations, who fumed, "Where the hell is the cavalry on this one?"
When Hurricane Michael came through four years ago, former Florida Emergency Management Division Director Craig Fugate reflected on the dynamic of hurricanes and elections.
Fugate, who went on to serve as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has seen plenty of storms. But he said little has changed.
"For any politician the rule is the same: Don't screw this up," Fugate said.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network's Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport