In Tight Race That Could Determine The Senate Majority, Even The Algae Counts

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September 21, 2018 6:00 a.m.

UPDATE, Friday Sept. 21, 9: 50 a.m. ET: This post was updated to include a statement from Gov. Scott’s campaign provided after the story was published.

No campaign wants its planned speaking tour overshadowed by coverage of throngs of angry protesters. But that’s the situation Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) found himself in this week as he hopscotched across the state on his “Make Washington Work Bus Tour.”

Scott was booed out of a Venice restaurant after only 10 minutes on Monday by protesters calling him “coward” and “Red Tide Rick,” a reference to the toxic red tide algal blooms currently choking the state’s Gulf coast. His campaign canceled an event in his hometown of Naples the next day. At his final stop in Orlando on Tuesday, a smaller group of environmental activists drew headlines, chanting, “Que se vaya” in Spanish.

Overlapping, persistent environmental crises plaguing the Sunshine State’s heavily-populated coasts are becoming a liability in a campaign that has so far been a smooth ride for Scott, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).

In a race that is shaping up as crucial for both parties’ efforts to win the Senate majority, even the algae counts.

“It is noteworthy in the sense that this is the first time in the governor’s picture-perfect campaign that you’ve seen things like major opposition and protest at his events,” Florida GOP lobbyist Justin Sayfie told TPM.

“People want someone to blame,” Sayfie continued. “You have tourism going down; you have the stench not just of the dead fish but of the algae bloom in the air. You want to hold somebody responsible.”

In a Friday statement, Scott spokesman Chris Hartline dismissed the criticism as Democrats’ “attempt to score political points before an election.”

“It’s ridiculous for Bill Nelson and his fellow democrats to try to blame Governor Scott for an issue that’s been neglected by the same federal government Nelson has been a part of for decades,” Hartline said.

Some voters do appear to blame the Scott administration for the outbreak, which he declared an emergency in August. A Florida Atlantic University poll released Thursday found Nelson closing in on Scott, with the governor narrowly ahead 42 percent to 41 percent. Asked whose policies were most responsible for the problems plaguing the state’s waters, 32 percent of voters said state government, compared to only 16 percent for local government and 13 percent for the federal government.

“Should the red tide be as significant as it is now, it’s going to be on a lot of voters’ minds in November,” FAU political science chair Kevin Wagner told TPM Thursday, noting that “a clear plurality of Floridians” appear to blame the state government.

Wagner, who helped oversee the FAU poll, noted that some of the worst-affected areas are concentrated on the reliably Republican southwest coast of the state.

“If Scott’s vulnerable in that area of Florida, that’s going to be a very difficult situation for him because that tends to be an area where Republicans get a lot of votes,” he said.

Red tides are a perennial problem on the Gulf Coast. Caused by a marine organism known as Karenia brevis, these algal blooms occur naturally, intensifying in the period from October through February. There is little understanding among scientists why some years suffer worse red tides than others, though they’re believed to be exacerbated by pollution including fertilizers and leaky septic tanks. Unfortunately for Scott, 2018 has seen one of the worst, most enduring blooms on record.

The algae makes water toxic for marine wildlife, and the carcasses of pale, bloated dolphins, manatees, fish, eels, and sea turtles have piled up along shorelines. Residents, particularly the elderly, have reported respiratory distress from the Karenia brevis.

<<enter caption here>> on August 1, 2018 in Captiva, Florida.
A Goliath grouper and other fish are seen washed ashore the Sanibel causeway after dying in a red tide on August 1, 2018 in Sanibel, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

At the same time, a separate blue-green bloom has flourished in central Florida’s freshwater Lake Okeechobee. Runoff containing human waste and fertilizers creates the algae and flows out of Okeechobee’s clogged estuaries onto beaches along the southeast coast, which have closed for swimming due to feces-related bacteria in the water.

Veteran Florida GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich said that he doesn’t believe there’s a “credible” way to blame the Scott administration for worsening environmental issues that have long plagued the state.

But Stipanovich acknowledges Scott is “on the defensive on this issue” because the blame people are trying to attribute to him on the environment “is at least speciously plausible.”

“If you’re trying to press home your advantages, whether it’s jobs, the economy, tax cuts or whatever, you’re not succeeding if you’re defending yourself on some hot-button issue,” he said.

Environmentalists, Florida Democrats and several local newspaper editorial boards have pointed to the algae problems as another mark on what the Ocala Star-Banner called Scott’s “putrid environmental record.” During his first term in 2011, Scott cut $700 million in funding from Florida’s water management oversight. He is seen as an ally to Big Sugar, one of the state’s largest polluters. In his push to jumpstart Florida’s economy, Scott has drastically rolled back environmental regulations including required septic-tank inspections.

His administration also forbade state officials from using the terms “climate change” or “global warming,” as the Florida Democratic Party reminded voters in a recent tweet.

“The sight of green slime in our waterways and dead fish on our beaches is a visible sign of just how bad a job Rick Scott has done as governor,” Nelson communications director Ryan Brown told TPM in a statement.

The Scott campaign has pointed fingers at Nelson, in turn, saying that he came into office pledging to clean up Florida’s environment and has not managed to do so. At his stop this week in Orlando, Scott said that he respected protesters’ “right to what they think” about the issue, but that his administration is “doing everything we can right now.”

“We need really good easterly winds right now,” Scott told reporters. “I wish it would get off our beaches. I know so many people would enjoy our beaches and enjoy our fishing.”

Scott has funneled resources to help clean up affected communities, setting aside an additional $4 million in grant funding this week alone.

Some Republicans in the state see the algae problems as a non-issue in the Senate race, arguing that the economy and public safety are more important factors driving voters to the polls.

GOP strategist Mike Hanna told TPM that the red tides were an issue during the two terms he served alongside Jeb Bush in the governor’s mansion, and will remain one long after the midterms.

“The oceans are a big part of our economy, but this is not what’s going to drive the vote in November,” Hanna told TPM. “This is an issue of the week.”

In some of the hardest-hit areas, though, the blooms do seem to be moving voters. The August primary results saw Scott sailing to victory with 89 percent of the vote, but hurting in the Treasure Coast’s Martin County, where the Lake Okeechobee algae has poisoned waterways.

As Stipanovich points out, the coastal areas affected by these twin blooms continue to expand by the day. Just Thursday, reports went out that the red tide outbreak has crept past Tampa Bay onto the shores of northwest Florida.

“This can be one of those issues that could very well be pivotal in a close election,” FAU’s Wagner said. “I suspect that talking about red tide is not what Scott’s campaign wanted to be doing at this point.”

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