Hurricane Michael, and the federal and state response to the disaster, could determine the outcome of Florida’s hotly contested Senate race as Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonHurricane Michael barrels into Florida races Senate heads home to campaign after deal on Trump nominees Dems struggle to mobilize Latino voters for midterms MORE (D-Fla.), one of the chamber’s most vulnerable Democrats, and Gov. Rick Scott battle to take political credit for the relief effort.
The storm gives Nelson and Scott an opportunity to play leadership roles on television as stricken residents of Florida’s panhandle look for the government’s help in putting their lives back together.
But failure to deliver — of the appearance of falling short — could hurt either or both candidates as the campaign enters its final stretch.
“It’s a big deal,” said Alex Patton, a Florida-based GOP consultant. “It’s a highly emotional time. Most Floridians relate to it.
“It’s a ton of free airtime during a very emotional time. You can look like, talk like and be a leader,” he added. “People remember this stuff.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who is the mayor of Tallahassee, has been interviewed the most on television in recent days, according to consultants in the state, which is likely to help his campaign for governor.
Scott, as sitting governor, also has had a lot of free airtime while Nelson, who was in Washington voting until Wednesday, has received less. But Democrats say being on television the most isn’t necessarily helpful if voters are disappointed with the relief efforts.
“There’s certainly an advantage to put on that government-issued polo shirt and windbreaker and stand behind the podium and tell people you care about the safety of their families but there are two sides to it,” said Ben Pollara, a Florida-based Democratic consultant and fundraiser.
Pollara noted that Scott came under criticism after Hurricane Irma when he did not quickly respond to messages asking for help left on his cellphone by employees at a nursing home, where 14 senior citizens eventually died because of bad conditions.
“It’s probably been a net positive for Rick Scott and Andrew Gillum this week as the rest of the political world shuts down and they’re on TV every day looking like strong leader but I think it’s premature to say that this will be defining moment in the campaign not knowing yet how the storm will ultimately be defined politically,” Pollara said.
Democrats say Nelson, who leads Scott by a couple of points in recent polls, could score big political points by securing a promise soon from Republicans for significant aid to Florida’s battered panhandle.
“He desperately needs this,” a Democratic aide said of Nelson. “He needs something good to come out of this.”
Senate Democrats increasingly see Nelson as their most vulnerable incumbent after Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampCornyn: ‘All the money in the world’ won’t help O’Rourke win Texas Senate heads home to campaign after deal on Trump nominees Native American tribe slams Supreme Court decision upholding North Dakota voter ID law MORE (D-N.D.), who has fallen behind her challenger by an average of 9 points in recent polls.
Nelson missed votes Thursday as he traveled to Florida to help his constituents deal with the storm’s aftermath.
“This is the largest one, the most difficult one certainly in my lifetime to hit he panhandle of Florida,” Nelson told anchor Judy Woodruff from Panama City Beach. “Now is the time for the federal government to come to everybody’s assistance.
“They’re going to need a lot of help around here for a long, long time,” he added.
Congress traditionally tries to set partisan politics aside when responding to a national disaster on the scale of Hurricane Michael, which laid a path of destruction through Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, which are still recovering from the devastating impact of Hurricane Florence.
The Senate recessed on Thursday for the rest of October and Congress isn’t expected to be back in session before the Nov. 6 election, which means a federal disaster relief package will wait until the December lame-duck session or next year.
Democrats say it would be a big boost for Nelson to secure a promise for an emergency funding from GOP leaders before Election Day but as of now it doesn’t look like he’s going to get it.
Republican leaders this week said the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has enough money to pay for the initial relief efforts. They say it will take time to assess the destruction, likely putting off any congressional action for a couple of months.
“The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) currently has sufficient funds for immediate disaster response thanks to prior action from Congress,” Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenOn The Money: Stocks slide for second day as Trump blames ‘loco’ Fed | Mulvaney calls for unity at consumer bureau | Pelosi says Dems will go after Trump tax returns GOP chairman: FEMA has enough money for Hurricane Michael NJ Republican has plan to win in November: Embrace Trump MORE (R-N.J.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
Frelinghuysen said his committee is closely monitoring FEMA’s funding levels.
“Should the need arise, my committee is prepared to act quickly,” he said, adding “our thoughts are with those affected by this and other hurricanes.”
A GOP aide said FEMA currently has $25 billion available in its accounts.
The damage caused by Michael could far exceed that amount, however.
Hurricane Harvey, which slammed into Texas and Louisiana in 2017 caused $125 billion in damage, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico last year, wrecked $90 billion worth of damage.
Senate GOP leaders say they’ll wait on states hit by Hurricane Michael to assess the damage before moving forward.
“They need to do an assessment first and then I’m sure we’ll address that as soon as they’re ready,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynCornyn: ‘All the money in the world’ won’t help O’Rourke win Texas Kavanaugh tensions linger after bitter fight Senate heads home to campaign after deal on Trump nominees MORE (R-Texas), adding he does not know the timing of congressional action.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP chairman: FEMA has enough money for Hurricane Michael Senate Republicans demand Google hand over memo advising it to hide data vulnerability GOP loads up lame-duck agenda as House control teeters MORE (R-S.D.) said Florida and other states will inform Congress if more money is needed and that money currently in the FEMA accounts should suffice for now.
“It’s all going to be determined what the needs are and the states are probably going to give us some direction on that,” he said. “But FEMA, I assume, is resourced at least initially well enough to be able to respond.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyOn The Money: Trump signs spending bill, preventing shutdown | House votes to extend individual tax cuts | Tesla shares plunge after SEC charges Musk with fraud Trump signs spending bill, preventing shutdown Five takeaways on Kavanaugh and Ford’s testimony MORE (R-Ala.) said work on a disaster relief package won’t begin immediately.
“We’ll do what we have to do but I think they’re going to have to assess some damage,” he said, noting that FEMA “always has some money.”
He said an assistance package “would probably have to be” after the election, noting that the Senate was likely to recess Thursday until after the election.
Hours later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellElection Countdown: O’Rourke brings in massive M haul | Deal on judges lets senators return to the trail | Hurricane puts Florida candidates in the spotlight | Adelson spending big to save GOP in midterms Kavanaugh likely won’t galvanize GOP voters ahead of midterms, says pollster Warren responds to ‘arrogant woman’ insult: ‘Was I tough on John Kelly? … You bet I was’ MORE (R-Ky.) and Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFive takeaways from the final Tennessee Senate debate Schumer rips Trump ‘Medicare for all’ op-ed as ‘smears and sabotage’ GOP senator suspects Schumer of being behind release of Ford letter MORE (N.Y.) struck a deal to vote on 15 judicial nominees and leave town until the week after Election Day.
“We’ll do what we have to do,” Shelby added. “We always respond to earthquakes and disasters of any kind, droughts. I don’t think you can just rush out there and just say we got an open-ended spigot.
“We need some guidelines. We need some real evidence of what they need,” he said.
Shelby said he would first expect a request for disaster relief from the White House before Congress begins working on a supplemental spending package.
A spokeswoman for Shelby said “the chairman will work closely with leadership and the southeastern state delegations regarding the best path forward to ensure we meet the needs of those affected.”
North and South Carolina received an initial infusion of $1.68 billion in the Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill, which the Senate passed earlier this month, to pay for the first round of repairs related to Hurricane Florence, a GOP aide noted.