Irmatics: Could Hurricane Irma impact political outcomes?

Some candidates seem to think so.

click to enlarge This aerial shot taken in the Florida Keys shows the extensive damage wrought by Hurricane Irma after it made landfall. - Photo courtesy of Nearmap
Photo courtesy of Nearmap
This aerial shot taken in the Florida Keys shows the extensive damage wrought by Hurricane Irma after it made landfall.

As with any major news event, it didn't take very long for Hurricane Irma to make its way into politics.

Candidates running in elections that are well over a year away were quick to respond to the storm — primarily, one hopes, out of concern for others more than political outcomes. Before the storm, those already in office spent untold amounts of time in front of TV news cameras espousing the virtues of having a plan. Afterwards, they updated us on recovery efforts. Some candidates even jumped in with criticisms of an incumbent's preparedness and recovery efforts.

But will all the press time in the lead-up and aftermath of Hurricane Irma translate in election outcomes?

It all depends.

Governor Rick Scott, who will likely run for U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson in 2018, couldn't have asked for more positive coverage as he managed preparedness and response efforts. The tea-party Republican shared the podium with Democratic mayors who in any other week would have, in any other week, been railing against him. And sure enough, even his staunchest critics applauded his handling of what was at one time supposed to be an unprecedented cataclysm for the nation's third most populous state.

Yet despite all the face time, his likely opponent will be able to expose a potential pitfall of Scott's — his notoriety as a climate change denier. Well before the Trump administration purged references to the phenomenon from the White House's website, Scott allegedly ordered that references to climate change be banished from all Florida Department of Environmental Protection communications.

Plus, despite a possible (if too complex to fully determine) connection between global warming and increased storm intensity and the visible evidence that sea-level rise is making it harder to manage coastal storms, Scott has remained silent on the issue.

“Clearly our environment changes all the time, and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it is,” Scott said, according to Politico. “But I can tell you this: We ought to go solve problems. I know we have beach renourishment issues. I know we have flood-mitigation issues.”

Given that the bulk of Floridians see climate change as a very real threat, Nelson's years of acknowledging the problem may help him make his case for another term.

And in the race to replace Scott, the storm is giving at least one Democrat a chance to stand out on the environment.

Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, a Democrat whose father is popular former Governor and Senator Bob Graham, railed against Scott and the Republican-dominated state legislature. She blamed them for doing everything from torpedoing legislation requiring nursing homes to have backup generators in 2005 to weakening building codes in 2017 — regulations that can obviously save lives.

Yet it's unclear whether calling out the party in power will do much good over a year before what will certainly be expensive, divisive midterm elections in which state-level policy matters might not even matter much to voters.

Democratic political consultant Steve Schale told the Fort Myers News-Press that midterm elections are “much more a matter of referendums on what’s happening in Washington and the presidency than local issues.”

One need look no further for evidence of that than the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It occurred in April of 2010, and it spurred a tsunami of criticism of Republicans' unabashed support of drilling and fossil fuels, deference to energy companies and penchant for deregulating industries that profit from pollution. So one would have thought the midterms would have swept anti-offshore drilling Democrats into legislative offices as well as the governorship. Instead, the national tea party wave brought easy wins to Republicans statewide — and Republicans tend to turn out in greater numbers in non-presidential year elections, anyhow.

So the real question, probably, is whether the legions of voters who protest Trump will keep up their momentum over the next year, or if they'll lose interest by then and wait till 2020 to go to the polls.

The storm may have some influence a little closer to home in the near-immediate future, though.

St. Petersburg's mayoral election — campaigning for which paused so the city could prepare for/recover from Irma — is less than two months away. Though ostensibly nonpartisan, in reality it's as R vs. D as any race at the state level — so much so that former President Barack Obama endorsed the Democrat. Despite hyper-local issues that lend nuance to the contest, the race is widely seen as a referendum on Trump. How the candidates dealt with Irma — and climate change — may be a factor.

Incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman (the Democrat) was front and center as the storm came and went, and has long warned that climate change will make life in the peninsular city difficult. His challenger, former Mayor Rick Baker (the Republican), grabbed a few headlines when he and his boss, billionaire developer Bill Edwards, set up a site for residents to apply for FEMA assistance at the headquarters of Edwards' Mortgage Investors Corp.

Baker has sought to make problems with St. Pete's sewage infrastructure a central issue in the race, and has tried to place the blame squarely on Kriseman for issues the led to the city dumping millions of gallons of sewage into the bay in 2015 and 2016 after major rain events — though Kriseman supporters say those issues were decades in the making and exacerbated by sea-level rise (something Baker doesn't talk about all that often). It is the single biggest issue to threaten Kriseman's reelection prospects, but he may have gotten some reprieve. Aside from a comparatively small (roughly 460,000 gallons) spill at a facility that was contained on site and immediately reported, the sewage system fared apparently just fine during Irma. Had it not, despite his 70-vote lead over Baker in the August primary, Kriseman's chance of winning might have wound up in the tank.

Also on the ballot in St. Pete and throughout Pinellas is a referendum to re-approve Penny for Pinellas, a penny-per-dollar sales tax that helps infrastructure projects that, if approved, would help fund sewage infrastructure upgrades as well as more hurricane shelters.

Will Irma's wrath be recent enough in voters' memory to play a role in either outcome on Nov. 7? Time will tell.

Mail ballots for those races start going out to domestic voters October 3.

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