The Senate Race That Climate Change Could Tip

Florida Governor Rick Scott’s constituents have already paid the costs of his environmental policies.

When Hurricane Michael hit Florida earlier this month as the strongest storm of 2018, it upended the lives of many of its residents. Now, it could tip the outcome of state’s upcoming U.S. senate race.

Republican Rick Scott, Florida’s current governor, leads Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent, by just one point according to a survey released on Oct. 16 by St. Pete Polls. Conventional wisdom suggests that Scott’s campaign will benefit from the storm’s intense coverage. In Tampa Bay Times poll of Florida’s political insiders, 77 percent said Hurricane Michael will benefit Scott. If the recovery is on pace through Election Day, Scott will look like a strong leader and effective executive, just as Barack Obama’s quick and compassionate response to Hurricane Sandy bolstered his 2012 re-election bid.

But Florida’s sitting governor has failed to protect the state from environmental threats—an impression that Hurricane Michael may exacerbate. As an ally of President Donald Trump, Scott strongly supported Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Paris climate accord. As governor, Scott reportedly banned state officials from using the terms “global warming” and “climate change.” In the last year, his disapproval rating climbed nine percent.

Polling suggests that Democrats’ have only a slim chance of winning control of the Senate this year. If the party has any hope of winning, Nelson will need to hold on to his seat. That is where Scott’s climate change denialism could prove decisive. While Florida tends to lean right, Scott’s stances on green issues in an increasingly environmentally conscious state could encourage voters to swing left.

Voter interest in environmental issues is exceptionally high this year, according to Jonathan Webber, the deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters, a non-partisan organization that supports candidates who will advocate for the environment. “I’ve never seen this level of interest or activism in my entire career,” he told me.

Historically, Webber said, environmental protection enjoyed bi-partisan support in Florida, but that began to change about 10 years ago—around the same time Scott entered the political scene. Under Scott and Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature, the environment has taken big hits. Webber said his organization has heard from many Republicans who are upset with the way their party has managed the climate crisis. “There are many older Republicans who miss the days when Republicans did really good things for Florida’s environment,” he said. “They want to send a message to their own party that the environment is not a partisan issue: They need to take care of it or they’re going to lose voters.”

Before he took office in 2011, Scott campaigned as part of the anti-tax, anti-regulation Tea Party. Over the last eight years, Scott has slashed the budget for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), cut Florida’s number of water quality monitoring sites by more than two-thirds, and reduced the number of court cases brought against alleged polluters by more than 80 percent.

While climate change has already begun to take its toll on Florida, Scott has refused to acknowledge its existence. Democrat Lindsay Cross, who is running for a seat in Florida’s state senate, said the environment is one of the top-polling issues in her area. “In Florida, we’ve relaxed some of our water quality regulations and limited the ability of our agencies to protect our waters,” said Cross, who has a master’s degree in environmental science and policy. “Because of significant budget cuts, agencies don’t have the personnel, or in some cases, the authority to enforce regulations.”

Cross is running in Florida’s twenty-forth state senate district, which encompasses Pinellas County, a place that suffered from flooding during Hurricane Michael, even though the storm ultimately landed more than 200 miles to the northwest. Cross said that Pinellas County residents have grown accustomed to seeing exceptionally high tides, known as king tides. In fact, FEMA recently released updated flood maps of the Tampa Bay area, which includes Pinellas County, to reflect the elevated risk.

But rising waters and stronger storms are not the only environmental issues affecting Pinellas County or the Florida senate race this year. For much of the summer, the state’s news coverage focused on the devastating algae blooms that engulfed South Florida, a crisis that has already become an important political issue. Even Trump’s pick for governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, has made the environment a central focus of his campaign, University of South Florida professor emeritus Susan MacManus pointed out.

While blue-green algae and red tide both occur naturally, many scientists say that lax regulations on South Florida’s agriculture industry, coupled with the onset of climate change, are making the situation worse. Though Scott has diverted money to help address Florida’s algae problem, many of his constituents believe he’s contributed to its severity; Scott was forced to cut short a campaign rally last month in Venice, typically a Republican stronghold, because of the large number of protestors angry about red tide.

On the campaign trail, Scott proudly boasts that Florida has added more than 1.6 million private-sector jobs during his tenure. What he does not mention, however, is that most of those jobs pay less than $10 an hour, with the largest portion coming in leisure and hospitality. Florida’s hospitality industry has suffered at the hands of red tide, which causes smelly fish kills and respiratory irritation miles from the beach. Through surveys conducted this summer, Visit Sarasota County, the official tourism agency of Sarasota and its white-sand beaches, found that dozens of area hotels had received cancelations due to red tide. Meanwhile, Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism organization, is offering free assistance to businesses that have been impacted.

This does not bode well for Scott, who will need the full backing of his Republican base—including business-friendly Republicans—if he hopes to take Nelson’s senate seat, especially given the state’s changing voter demographics.

Florida’s electorate is getting younger. An analysis by TargetSmart showed that the rate of voter registration among 18- to 29-year-old Floridians increased by 8 percent following the Parkland shooting in February. Though the Sunshine State is known for its large population of retirees, more than 50 percent of Florida’s registered voters now come from the Z, Millennial, and X generations, according to MacManus, who is considered the state’s leading political authority. “These younger generations are environmental voters much more heavily than the older ones,” she said. Should they turnout on November 6, Scott’s chances of winning will diminish.

It isn’t just Michael or algae. Last year’s Hurricane Maria was a Category 5 storm that killed more than 3,000 people and caused an estimated $91.6 billion in damage. Because of its devastating impact on Puerto Rico, tens of thousands of the island’s residents have relocated to Florida over the past 12 months. They are eligible to vote in the upcoming election.

While pollsters have struggled to nail down exactly how many Puerto Ricans have settled in Florida since Maria, and how many will vote come Election Day, both Scott and Nelson have made heavy efforts to appeal to the state’s increasing number of Hispanic voters.

In connecting with Puerto Rican constituents, Scott has a lot to overcome. Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, endorsed Nelson. Additionally, Scott’s unwavering support of Donald Trump, whose inept response to Hurricane Maria contributed to a staggering death toll on the small island, could hurt him.

It may be months before the full economic impact of this Florida’s summer algae outbreaks can be assessed. And it’s still unclear how much changing demographics—including the influx of Puerto Rican residents—will shape the state’s electorate. But Scott has been losing Floridians for years with his negligent environmental policies, which, for his constituents, have been more than just an abstraction. If Scott’s loss costs the Republicans control of the senate, it will be poetic justice for a party that has spent years denying a reality that hides in plain sight.

Megan Hart

Megan Hart is a writer living in Florida. Her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Vice, and the Chicago Sun-Times.