Trump, GOP Gamble on Algae in Florida Senate Fight

Democrats say Republican efforts to spotlight the toxic algae crisis will end up boosting Sen. Bill Nelson.

Sen. Bill Nelson at a Democratic Party rally Aug. 31 in Orlando, Fla.
AP Photo/John Raoux
Oct. 14, 2018, 8 p.m.

President Trump loves to tout the go-go economy and low unemployment rates while stumping for Republicans ahead of the midterm elections. But last week he stepped out of that lane to highlight an algae crisis in Florida that has slashed profits for businesses across the Sunshine State—and Democratic operatives are goading the president to keep at it.

“@FLGovScott has been relentless in securing the funding to fix the algae problem from Lake Okeechobee,” Trump tweeted. “Bill Nelson has been no help!”

Nelson, a Democrat seeking his fourth term in the Senate, is locked in a tight, high-profile race with Gov. Rick Scott. Most recent polls give Nelson the edge, a stark contrast from polls throughout the summer that had Scott up by substantial margins. The Cook Political Report labels the race a Toss-Up.

And now, national Republicans seem to think that Scott’s environmental record could play well in the waning weeks of the election season.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week pointed to support from Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio while championing algae language that passed as part of a bipartisan water-infrastructure package. That language boosts algae research and pushes forward an Everglades restoration plan that experts say is critical to combating the blue-green algae blooms around the lake.

Asked whether Republicans aim to continue touting Scott’s algae policies, a Senate Republican campaign operative responded: “We 100 percent support Governor Scott's leadership on the algae crisis impacting Florida.”

But there’s a rub. A September poll from Florida Atlantic University shows roughly a third of voters blame state government for the algae blooms, which continue to batter business to the tune of millions of dollars and pose health risks, and only 13 percent point the finger at Washington.

And Scott has felt the heat for weeks. Protestors besieged a rally Scott held in a restaurant last month over the algae crisis, forcing him to duck out through a back door. Signs and chants dubbed the two-term governor “Red Tide Rick,” a moniker that hits on the red-tide algae that is killing fish and wreaking havoc on the fishing and tourism industries in the Gulf.

Newspaper editorials have also taken on Scott over his environmental policies, pointing to a $700 million cut to the state’s water-management districts and a decision to bow out of a massive land-purchase deal that could have helped restore the Everglades and mitigate the algae blooms.

Meanwhile, Nelson and Rubio spearheaded the inclusion of the algae provisions in the infrastructure bill. Democratic operatives say they believe several recent ads targeting Scott’s policies on algae likely played a role in the poll swing, and they’re now pining for more national attention on the issue.

“There was an impact there with voters connecting the dots,” John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster and research specialist in the state who is working with Senate Majority PAC, told National Journal. “It’s surprising that [Trump] would get in on an issue that’s not in his lane … it was an unforced error.”

Florida is ground zero in the fight against algae blooms, which are growing in size and duration annually. Experts aren’t drawing concrete connections between red tide and human behavior or regulatory policies, and historical records suggest that red tide surfaced along Florida’s Gulf Coast for hundreds of years.

But the blue-algae in Okeechobee is the direct result of runoff from industrial and agricultural operations, as well as lawn fertilizer. Experts say that runoff is sending nitrogen and phosphorous into freshwater bodies, a process called “nutrient loading,” which in turn creates the blooms.

Overdevelopment in South Florida has also diverted Okeechobee discharges to the east and west, rather than to the natural water flow south through the Everglades. And analysis suggests that that process has not only helped to foster the blooms in the region but exacerbated the red tide. Environmental advocates fear the blooms, which resemble sludge, may infiltrate drinking-water supplies and, depending on the digestion extent, lead to fatalities.

Scott, who rose to power in Florida as part of the 2010 tea-party wave, has championed deregulation. Democratic operatives are now goading the Governor and his proxies to highlight that track record.

“It’s a massive mistake for national Republicans to cast an even brighter spotlight on Rick Scott’s glaring environmental weaknesses, and it was in especially poor form for them to do so in the midst of a hurricane when politics is traditionally suspended in the state,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee national press secretary David Bergstein, a former spokesperson for the Florida Democratic Party, told National Journal.

Just hours after Trump’s tweet, Hurricane Michael leveled Mexico Beach and other parts of Florida. The storm’s top sustained winds reached 155 miles per hour and claimed over a dozen lives. Both Senate campaigns suspended operations to respond to the destruction and displacement, and neither campaign responded to National Journal questions on algae tactics moving forward.

To add to the intrigue of Trump’s tweet, Scott has so far maintained some distance from the president.

The governor broke ranks with the de facto head of the Republican Party last month following Trump’s unfounded assertion that Democrats inflated the Puerto Rican death toll linked to Hurricane Maria. More than a million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, making that constituency potentially powerful at that ballot box.

Algae blooms are only one—albeit significant—flashpoint in the Senate race. Statewide Florida races are perennially tight. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Trump surrogate, are fighting tooth-and-nail to succeed Scott. Polls give Gillum the edge, and Cook rates the race as a Toss-Up.

Scott, a businessman whose net worth exceeded $200 million before the summer-advertisement season, has outspent Nelson handily in the campaign, using millions of his own money. Now, Nelson is banging on the doors of donors in the final stretch of a campaign that could shape political power in Washington.

“We know that Democrats CANNOT take back the Senate if Bill Nelson loses in Florida—and we're about to run out of money for our TV ads,” Nelson’s campaign said in an email blast late last week. “Rick Scott is pouring millions into this race, and Senate control is on the line.”

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