The 2017 hurricane season is emerging as a factor in Florida’s 2018 elections – and it could have political impact for years beyond that in America’s largest swing state.
Preparation for and response to Hurricane Irma, which tore through most of the state Sept. 10, dominated Florida’s attention for weeks and provided a plethora of shirtsleeve photo ops for Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and other elected officials.
President Donald Trump, who carried Florida by 1.2 percent in 2016, visited Florida four days after Irma’s landfall and used the occasion to praise Scott’s handling of the storm and publicly urge him to run for Senate against Nelson next year.
Trump is planning a Tuesday trip to Puerto Rico — where Hurricane Maria’s devastation has drawn intense focus from Florida politicians. That’s undoubtedly due to humanitarian concerns but also a recognition of the more than 1 million Puerto Ricans who live in Florida and the thousands more who might flee to the Sunshine State in Maria’s aftermath.
“The expectation is that more people will come here” from Puerto Rico, says University of Florida political science lecturer Carlos Suarez, who specializes in Puerto Rican and Caribbean politics.
“If we go by the currently held opinion of people, that would be good for Democrats,” said Suarez. “But they need to get out the vote. That’s the bottom line.”
Cuban-Americans, who historically lean Republican, have been the dominant Hispanic group in Florida. But Puerto Ricans, who lean more Democratic, have more than doubled in Florida since 2000. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2016 estimates Florida’s Cuban population at nearly 1.5 million and its Puerto Rican population at nearly 1.1 million.
Republican strategist Bettina Inclan, a Miami native who formerly headed Hispanic outreach efforts for the Republican National Committee, said the Puerto Rican vote isn’t a slam dunk for Democrats.
“They tend to be Democrat,” Inclan acknowledged. But she noted Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner (Jenniffer Gonzalez, the island’s non-voting representative in Congress) is a Republican.
Whatever long-term changes Puerto Rican migration might bring to Florida politics, Hurricanes Irma and Maria have already become part of the 2018 political discussion in the state.
Scott was a ubiquitous presence on TV in the weeks before and after Irma and has received generally high marks for his handling of the storm.
A poll by the business-backed Florida Chamber Political Institute found 91 percent of likely Florida voters approved of the job Scott did preparing for and responding to the hurricane. The same poll gave Scott a 47-to-45 percent edge over Nelson in a hypothetical Senate race — a virtual tie considering the poll’s 4 percent margin of error.
But Scott has drawn fire from Democrats and the George Soros-backed liberal group American Bridge 21st Century for deleting voicemail messages to his cell phone from a Broward County nursing home where sweltering post-Irma conditions have led to 12 deaths.
Scott has said the voicemails from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills “were promptly returned by state officials, and the voicemails were immediately deleted so the voicemail box had room for more incoming messages. In none of these calls did the staff indicate that any of their patients were in danger.”
Nelson on Friday asked for a U.S. Senate investigation of the nursing home deaths and the state’s role in certifying the facility “as well as the state’s response in the aftermath of the Florida incident.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee accused Scott of a “failure to respond” to requests for help from the nursing home and American Bridge, in a preview of a likely 2018 attack ad, has made a video about “Rick Scott’s Nursing Home Scandal.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham on Friday filed a public records request asking Scott “to attempt to recover deleted voicemails from the Hollywood Hills nursing home.” Graham also released a statement through her campaign accusing Scott of a “possible cover-up.”
Nelson, meanwhile, was blasted by Republicans this week for sending out a campaign email that boasts of his efforts to cap airline fares as Irma approached. The email includes a “Contribute” button so recipients can donate to his re-election campaign.
“Bill Nelson is spending time blasting out fundraising emails while countless Floridians are recovering from Hurricane Irma’s devastation,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Katie Martin. “Bill Nelson’s D.C. elitist behavior is always self-serving, but this kind of out of touch behavior reaches a new low.”
Asked about the GOP criticism, Nelson spokesman Ryan Brown didn’t discuss the email but accused Trump and Scott of “using a disaster event to campaign together” when the president made his post-Irma visit to Florida.
With Trump unpopular among Democratic primary voters, declared and potential Democratic candidates for governor have blasted the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria.
“The President’s disregard for the lives and property of our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico is outrageous…It’s past time for Trump to step up and allow the federal government, our military, and humanitarians provide all the relief possible,” Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum declared Friday.
Democratic candidate Chris King put out a statement Friday claiming relief efforts are being hindered by the Trump administration’s “self-importance and arrogance.”
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who is considering a Democratic bid for governor, visited Puerto Rico on Wednesday with a planeload of supplies. He took to CNN on Thursday to rip the administration and showcase his own leadership philosophy.
“The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack,” Levine said twice in less than 5 minutes. For Puerto Rico, Levine said, the Trump administration should “treat it like a war — help these people.”