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Breaking taboo, negative ads fly during Florida hurricane

Elections

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It had once been considered taboo in Florida to run negative campaign attack ads as a hurricane batters the state.

But no more.

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As Hurricane Michael bore down Wednesday on the Panhandle with Category 4 winds, the Republican Party of Florida broke with that tradition and continued to air two ads bashing Ron DeSantis’ Democratic rival in the race for governor, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, over his city’s response to a hurricane in 2016.

And in the U.S. Senate race, the Democratic super PAC backing Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla) began running a negative commercial in strike-zone markets calling his opponent Gov. Rick Scott a dishonest “shady millionaire who doesn’t look out for you.” Also in those markets, a Republican super PAC supporting Scott is attacking Nelson in ad for being “an empty suit.”

There is a major difference between the two negative ads: The Senate campaigns have no say over the super PAC ads, can’t coordinate with the group under federal law, and Nelson’s campaign said no one should be posting negative ads in the counties affected by Michael. DeSantis’ campaign, however, is governed by state law and worked side-by-side with the state GOP with its attack ad.

“We can’t recall a time where candidates for statewide office have not pulled down negative ads during hurricane season,” Gillum said on MSNBC as the storm bore down. “You’ve got a whole region of our state, where folks are fleeing for their lives, anticipating what is a life-threatening event impacting this state. I again would encourage my opponent to just subside with the politics. We’ll have plenty enough room — beyond this storm — to compete between our ideas. What we need now is for the state to come together to reduce our partisanship and to focus on this important storm impacting our state.”

DeSantis’ campaign referred questions about the ad to the state Republican Party, which later said it would pull the ads down.

Hurricanes are one of the ultimate tests of a politician’s leadership skills in Florida and, if managed right, often help them on the campaign trail because of the free media they earn that shows them in charge and rising above politics. Still, campaigns and their backers typically have not attacked rivals in counties in media markets threatened or immediately damaged by hurricanes.

Striking as the most powerful hurricane to hit the Panhandle in a century, Michael’s eye made landfall Wednesday afternoon near Panama City, giving residents throughout the 35 counties with a disaster declaration hours of TV watching time before power began going out. In all, the storm affected five of Florida’s 10 media markets.

Scott, whose poll numbers rose after Hurricane Irma in 2017, has been particularly adept in leveraging his media appearances the day before Hurricane Michael approached, earning him more than 5,800 mentions on TV, 10 times that of Nelson or Gillum, according to the TVEyes tracking service. DeSantis had half of Gillum’s media mentions and fewer national broadcast hits on CNN, MSNBC and the Weather Channel — networks Scott has dominated.

Mike Coffman.

Scott and Nelson have been neck and neck in recent public polls, but the Democrat has a small edge that’s well within their error margins.

Craig Fugate, a former Florida emergency manager under former Republican Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist and the former head of the Federal Emergency Management agency under President Barack Obama, issued a mild criticism of all the campaigning.

“I would encourage all Florida Candidates running for office to use this time to help raise funds for the @RedCross @SalArmyEDS @TeamRubicon and others part of the @NationalVOAD,” Fugate wrote on Twitter.

Trailing Gillum in most polls, DeSantis’ campaign has been the most negative of the four statewide campaigns.

The DeSantis campaign did complain that Gillum’s campaign is running a negative spot in the Jacksonville TV market — away from the hurricane — where Leon County’s sheriff said in the ad that DeSantis was “lying” about Gillum’s record concerning Tallahassee’s response to Hurricane Hermine in 2016.

In the Senate race, Chris Hayden, a spokesman for Senate Majority PAC that supports Democrats, said it’s not pulling its ad because the Scott-backing New Republican PAC continues to attack Nelson.

“We’re taking our lead on this from Scott’s super PAC,” Hayden said.

New Republican spokeswoman Melissa Stone said the PAC is working to pull the ad down.

Donald Trump

“I don’t think anybody should be political advertising in an area affected by the storm that’s threatening people’s lives and property,” Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said.

He said it was unfair the governor was still “airing all kinds of ads, including one about his leadership during hurricanes that’s airing on national TV.” McLaughlin said the commercial is inaccurate. Scott’s campaign stands by the ad.

Scott’s campaign pointed out that a positive Nelson ad had been airing in Tallahassee — firmly within the strike zone — but its bigger concern was the Senate Majority PAC ad.

“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,” said his campaign spokesman Chris Hartline. “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. Now is not the time for politics.”

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