Floridians are bracing themselves for Hurricane Michael, which forecasters predict could hit the state's Panhandle region today. If Michael devastates the Sunshine State, lives, livelihoods, and all manner of property could be lost.
But Michael could also have a big effect on the Nov. 6 midterms — and with it the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
The mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum, is the Democratic nominee for governor in Florida. He's running against former GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis. Florida's governor, Republican Rick Scott, is challenging the Democratic incumbent senator, Bill Nelson, who is running for his fourth term. Polling for both statewide races puts them at or near a dead heat as the storm comes up the Gulf of Mexico. That sets up the potential for a dramatic showdown between politicians with every political incentive to make their opponent look bad, but also with the need to rely on each other to deliver in a crisis.
Hurricanes have upended political battles in the past. Republican partisans held a grudge against former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for years, blaming him in part for Barack Obama's narrow win in 2012 over Mitt Romney. Christie literally embraced the president in late October 2016 when Obama came to inspect damage from Hurricane Sandy, one of the most destructive storms to hit the Northeast in decades. It provided Obama a moment to demonstrate both leadership and bipartisanship just a week ahead of a national election.
With Hurricane Michael, the incentives for leadership and bipartisanship might once again come into competition with electoral impulses.
Much has been written about Senate races as national elections in 2018, especially in states won by President Trump in 2016. Most expected the midterms to be a referendum on Trump's performance, especially in Florida, where elections sometimes come down to a handful of votes. Interest has intensified as pollsters have discovered a new wave of enthusiasm among Republican voters in response to the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight. The impulse may be irresistible to see Florida's election through that prism.
All of those factors will certainly be in play. However, Florida may wind up being the closest thing we get this cycle to a truly local election at the top of the ballot.
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.
Scott has a clear advantage in this case, as well as more risk. As governor, he has much more executive authority than Gillum to direct resources and rescue operations. Gillum might be the face of the city, but Scott runs the whole state, and this crisis goes beyond city limits. If things go smoothly and damage is minimized, Scott will garner the lion's share of credit. If things go badly, that calculus will change dramatically, but Scott has been through enough major storms to prepare as well as possible to avoid the pitfalls of failing responses.
Florida voters will still care about Trump's job performance, the Kavanaugh debacle, and the direction of national politics. No one will blame them, however, for being reminded by Hurricane Michael to focus on the more traditional measures of how their elected officials actually perform in a crisis. Perhaps we can all take a lesson from that, while we pray that our fellow citizens in Florida make it through this storm.