As Hurricane Michael lashes the Florida Panhandle, attack ads are being run on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis targeting his opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum.
Meanwhile Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, has suspended campaigning entirely during the storm to focus on his city, which is in the hurricane’s line of fire.
Florida’s Republican Party continued airing ads as Hurricane Michael made landfall, attacking Gillum for his handling of 2016’s Hurricane Hermine, which left much of Tallahassee without electricity. DeSantis’ campaign has notably taken a leading role in assisting with crafting the ads.
Ahead of the storm, Gillum announced he would halt campaigning to focus on addressing the needs of Tallahassee. Hurricane Michael made landfall on Wednesday as a life-threatening Category 4 storm, the first time a storm of such strength has ever hit northwest Florida. Over a million power outages are expected across the coast as well as further inland and officials have warned that any residents who have not evacuated are in extreme danger.
Candidates traditionally suspend attack ads during natural disasters, but that hasn’t been the case in the state’s gubernatorial race. Two ads supporting DeSantis that have been running for at least two weeks continued to air into Wednesday, reaching those inside of Hurricane Michael’s strike zone.
“Gillum turned away workers who would have restored our power,” says a DeSantis supporter identified as “Allison” in one of the ads, speaking about the period following the 2016 hurricane. “It was devastating. Pure politics.”
In the other as, a DeSantis backer named Kathryn states that “after the hurricane, we had no electricity for a week” and that Gillum “failed us.”
Gillum slammed the decision to run the ads during the storm on Wednesday in an interview with MSNBC.
“We can’t recall a time where candidates for statewide office have not pulled down negative ads during hurricane season,” the gubernatorial candidate said. “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.”
Emphasizing that the candidates have until November to reach voters, Gillum accused DeSantis of partisan politics at a time when Florida’s residents are in danger.
“We’ll have plenty enough room — beyond this storm — to compete between our ideas,” he said. “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.”
“You run your campaign the way you run your campaign. It is what it is,” DeSantis said in Tampa. “We’ve had all this planned out long before and we’re going to stick with our plan so people will see that unfold in the next day or two.”
But following widespread criticism, Florida’s Republican Party said Wednesday afternoon that it would pull the ads, according to Politico. That decision came after former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator and Florida Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate called on “all Florida candidates” to pull such ads, in direct response to the ads targeting Gillum.
Other candidates have also said they would suspend campaigning in light of the hurricane, including Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his rival, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D). While a Democratic super PAC supporting Nelson has run attack ads against Scott within the strike zone, Senate campaigns notably have no control over such groups under federal law. DeSantis’s campaign, by contrast, has worked with the Florida GOP on the ads attacking Gillum.
The role of ads during natural disasters has stirred controversy recently. Republican Mark Harris, who is running against Democrat Dan McCready in the state’s 9th congressional district, increased campaign ads on the Weather Channel in advance of Hurricane Florence hitting North Carolina last month. Harris also sharply criticized McCready over his decision to suspend campaigning over the hurricane, calling the move a “gimmick.”
Michael is already set to disrupt Florida’s midterm elections. Voter registration in the state was meant to end Tuesday but Florida Democrats are trying desperately to extend that deadline in light of the storm.
As of Tuesday evening, Florida’s secretary of state had declared that those voters whose supervisor of elections offices were closed Tuesday would be permitted a grace day when they reopen, but that others would not be extended the same leeway. Online voter registration has similarly not been extended.
Meanwhile, the environmental issues that have plagued the state will likely continue following the hurricane, with an emphasis on the state’s ongoing algae crisis. Experts are divided on how Michael will impact “red tide,” the toxic blooms plaguing the state’s shores, but some worry the storm could push the algae inland and endanger human health. Red tide can trigger asthma attacks and cause flu-like symptoms, as well as severe headaches.