Hurricane Michael was the most powerful storm to ever rip into the Florida Panhandle but even a tropical cyclone can’t stop midterm election politics.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott, vying to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, has forgone campaign appearances while he focuses on duties with his stricken constituents in Florida’s northwestern corner. The senator, meanwhile, has been hopping around to various coastal towns that were ravaged by the storm.
But when Mr. Scott cut an advertisement portraying his actions as a steady hand in a crisis – a selling point he had stressed previously after Hurricane Irma smashed into southern Florida in 2017 – the Nelson campaign accused him of politicking off the fatal natural disaster.
“Turns out … Rick Scott literally was shooting a political ad while he was touring hurricane ravaged areas as governor this past weekend,” Nelson campaign spokesman Dan McLaughlin said.
In response, the Scott campaign pointed out Mr. Nelson himself cut an ad in his 1998 race for insurance commissioner boasting of his work helping Florida recover from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Mr. Scott has avoided campaign events in the wake of Michael, leaving appearances to his wife Ann and other surrogates, with a source close to the governor saying this week it wasn’t clear how many campaign events Mr. Scott will be able to attend before election day.
Meanwhile, the two sides sparred over another debate.
Since the first debate earlier this month, the Scott campaign has mocked Mr. Nelson’s wooden and sometimes fumbling appearance at it, accusing him of trying to change the agreed-upon rules of a second debate to be held by CNN next week.
Then Michael intervened, forcing CNN to postpone hosting a second debate scheduled for next week and leaving the Nelson camp to claim it was champing at the bit to square off with Mr. Scott again if only the governor would stop dodging a rematch.
“Regarding debates, we agreed to two, the latter being cancelled right after the storm,” said Mr. McLaughlin of the Nelson campaign. “Rather than face-off in a CNN studio very late in the election, why not now have a town-hall format like the one hosted by CNN earlier this year?”
The Scott campaign said Mr. Nelson was trying to change the rules after his earlier debate showing, by saying he would now prefer a town-hall meeting rather than a debate.
“Regarding debates, we agreed to two, the latter being cancelled right after the storm,” Mr. McLaughlin of the Nelson campaign. “Rather than face-off in a CNN studio very late in the election, why not now have a town-hall format like the one hosted by CNN earlier this year?”
But the Scott people wanted no part of that, recalling an infamous CNN town-hall meeting at which Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was hounded by hosts and guests, sometimes with outright falsehoods, right after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
The two campaigns continued to spar over the topic all Wednesday afternoon.
First, the Nelson campaign was careful to reword a shot it took Tuesday when it tweeted, “if Scott wants a debate BEFORE voting starts on Oct. 22 – you bet we’ll be there.”
That left the Scott camp repeating one of its favorite labels for Mr. Nelson, saying he “must be confused,” because voting already has begun.
Thus, late Wednesday afternoon the Nelson campaign massaged its accusation saying, “Rick Scott refused to debate before early voting starts en masse Oct. 22.”
Mr. Scott tried to put the shifting narrative and the dispute to rest by tweeting, “Senator Nelson is backing out of the debate that CNN proposed for Oct. 25th and I have already agreed to. I hope he reconsiders.”
In the end, it could all prove academic. While the two campaigns were throwing punches, CNN tweeted it wasn’t going to host a debate.
“Update,” the network said just before 1:30 p.m. “Regrettably, Sen. Bill Nelson and Gov. Rick Scott are unable to agree on a new date to hold the U.S. Senate debate originally scheduled to air Tuesday, Oct. 16. Therefore, the CNN Florida Senate debate has been cancelled.”