Florida panhandling: In hurricane aftermath, bitter war over negative ads

Residents in the Florida Panhandle will spend the next several weeks picking through the debris left behind by Hurricane Michael and beginning the rebuilding of their communities. Politics will matter most when it deals with restoring services, assessing damage, and getting relief to people temporarily left homeless and jobless in the massive destruction. “It’s a very surreal situation,” says Cajun Navy volunteer Jason Gunderson near the point of landfall,” as CNN shows the extent of the damage:

Of course, it’s not just volunteers who are out risking life and limb; the cities, counties, and state government in Florida are also in full storm-recovery mode now. In disaster recovery efforts outside of election cycles, people tend to rally behind leaders at every level, not just for political but pragmatic reasons. There’s only one governor, and when your health and safety is on the line, you hope he/she succeeds regardless of their party affiliation.

When they happen four weeks before a major election, however, electioneering is part of the game. And so is complaining about electioneering:

Before Hurricane Michael’s 155-mile-per-hour winds blasted the Florida Panhandle Wednesday afternoon and eventually knocked out the power to thousands of households, scores of voters watching TV for news of the approaching hurricane were also presented with dark and stormy ads about statewide political candidates.

Breaking what politicians claim is an unwritten rule of campaign decorum, Democrats and Republicans alike continued running attacks on their opponents despite the oncoming storm. That meant hundreds of thousands of people in the storm’s path spent the morning receiving updates and cautions from Gov. Rick Scott and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum only to immediately receive information during commercial breaks from anonymous narrators explaining that the men — who are seeking new offices — are in fact not to be trusted. …

The back-and-forth over campaign ads has been ongoing for days and illustrates the stakes involved in hurricane politics. Elected executives like Gillum and Scott gained days of valuable media exposure due to their rolls in storm preparations while former congressman DeSantis and incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson stood on the outside looking in — with Nelson literally being kept out of an emergency managers meeting Monday in Tallahassee.

While the subtle politicking of disaster management is deemed acceptable, the overt politics of campaign messaging is not.

The rule is unwritten because it doesn’t exist. It’s like the fanciful idea that presidents don’t get criticized when on trips abroad, another “unwritten rule” conveniently recalled only by the president’s party. No one stops campaigning this close to a major election, regardless of the nature of the disaster. For instance, in the financial crash that touched off the Great Recession, the late John McCain famously declared that he would suspend his campaign so that both he and Barack Obama could return to the US Senate to deal with the crisis. Obama didn’t reciprocate, leading McCain back to a prescheduled debate a few days later … when polling showed that only 22% of voters supported McCain’s campaign suspension.

Complicating matters in Florida is that not all of these ads are coming from the campaigns. Many of them, if not quite all, are coming from PACS with which candidates are forbidden to coordinate. That won’t keep their opponents from blaming them anyway:

Meanwhile Scott’s campaign lashed out at Nelson, pointing out that Senate Majority PAC, a political committee backing Nelson’s reelection bid, was still running negative commercials blasting Scott’s two terms as Florida governor. Campaign spokesman Chris Hartline called the commercial “false” and “dangerous.”

“Governor Scott is the leader of the state of Florida. The people of Florida rely on him for accurate information about the path of the storm and federal, state and local efforts. It’s offensive and, quite honestly dangerous, that Bill Nelson and his out of state allies would run their false, negative ads while Rick Scott is warning the millions of Floridians in the path of Hurricane Michael to evacuate or shelter in place.” said Hartline. “Now is not the time for politics.”

That’s one of the main reasons PACs exist — to remove accountability from candidates for campaign advertising. That may not help in these circumstances, however; to the extent that voters pay attention to these ads in the middle of an emergency, they’re likely to backfire, especially the closer those voters are to the disaster. All they want is to get their services restored, and anyone talking about anything else is almost certainly going to get discounted as unserious.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the risks for Nelson and Ron DeSantis in attempting to go negative this week … as well as the risks of going dark:

Hurricane Michael arrives as the local response to an earlier hurricane has already been a campaign issue. Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis has criticized Gillum’s leadership during Hurricane Hermine two years ago, when Tallahassee decided not to accept help from Florida Power & Light, sparking a battle between Scott and the city. The nature of Tallahassee’s mayoral office gave Gillum little official power to intervene, but DeSantis has been running ads blasting Gillum for not persuading the city’s utilities director to accept the help after it had been offered. With Hurricane Michael bearing down on the city, Gillum and other Democrats are demanding that DeSantis withdraw the ad until at least after the storm.

Whether DeSantis pulls the ads or not may not matter much now. The hurricane and subsequent response from Scott and Gillum are what voters will measure in the next few weeks. Both will need to work together to minimize the damage to Tallahassee’s citizens while finding ways to distinguish their own performances. Their best bet is to work together as much as possible, even if that runs the risk of boosting each other in relation to their own party’s candidate in the other statewide race.

That leaves DeSantis and Nelson in a tough spot. Neither have any authority to direct preparation or recovery efforts, although both will certainly be on the ground and lending assistance in the crisis. Both will undoubtedly look for openings for criticism, but that is a dangerous game as well. Any criticism under the circumstances will look obviously partisan and self-serving in a crisis, which might well result in a backlash that could sink their chances. They have no other role than passive observers, almost literally borne by the winds of fortune.

Neither campaign has handled this well so far. They’d be better off getting on the ground and providing assistance, helping out their colleagues — Nelson with Gillum, DeSantis with Scott — and raising their profiles more positively in the crisis. Without that, Gillum and especially Scott will get the biggest boosts from their examples of crisis management, assuming that they manage it well. If they don’t, the ads won’t matter at all.

David Strom 6:41 PM on September 26, 2022