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A Look At The Political Impact Of Hurricane Michael In Florida

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When Hurricane Michael barreled through Florida, it also crashed right into the middle of two hotly contested political races. Florida is of course a swing state and a critical one. And candidates vying for the governor's seat and a U.S. Senate seat were quick to jump into relief efforts. Here's Democrat Andrew Gillum. He's running for governor and wielding a chainsaw to help clear fallen trees...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW REVVING)

KELLY: ...Revving up there. Meanwhile, here is his opponent. This is Republican Ron DeSantis on his way to the Panhandle to help out volunteers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: We're going to continue to collect supplies at the Republican victory offices for the next several weeks, so keep pitching in because the folks in northwest Florida need you.

KELLY: The folks in northwest Florida need you. Well, let me bring in Steve Bousquet. He's the Tallahassee bureau chief for the Tampa Bay Times. He has been out and about today covering current Governor Rick Scott. Steve Bousquet, welcome to the program.

STEVE BOUSQUET: Thank you.

KELLY: So how much has Hurricane Michael shaken up these two big races?

BOUSQUET: It's had a major effect in the governor's race and the race for the United States Senate because the Democratic candidate for governor is the mayor of Tallahassee, which got hit hard by the storm. And the leading Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Rick Scott, the sitting governor, is pressed into his other role as commander in chief in an emergency to sort of help this state recover.

KELLY: Tell me a little bit more about how the candidates have adjusted what they're doing. We heard a little bit there from the gubernatorial candidates out on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, Rick Scott, who, as I mentioned, is currently governor - he's running to be senator. I hear he has turned his campaign over to his wife at least temporarily so that he can focus on cleaning up after the hurricane.

BOUSQUET: That's correct. Rick Scott has suspended campaigning. And his wife, first lady Ann Scott, who has really not had much of a profile as first lady, has stepped into the role. That's very unusual. And I just left Rick Scott in Gadsden County, which is the next county west of Tallahassee. Rick Scott - though he's not formally campaigning, he was a listening post for people's concerns about storm problems. But everyone wanted to have their picture taken with the governor. Everyone wanted to shake his hand. The point I'm making is you can't ever completely separate governing from campaigning.

KELLY: Let me ask you one practical question. Early voting in some of the hardest-hit parts of Florida is supposed to begin at the end of this month, October 27. Are those polling places likely to be up and running?

BOUSQUET: Not in a place like Bay County, which is the hardest-hit county of them all and which is, by the way, the biggest county in the hurricane zone. They're scrambling. And I've talked to election supervisors who are asking Governor Scott to issue an executive order that would dramatically reduce the number of voting locations so that you'd have these super voting centers maybe every 5 or 10 miles. People would have to travel further to vote, but everyone's vote would be protected.

KELLY: Has the hurricane changed the issues that voters say they want to vote on? I mean, I'm thinking of climate change, which is not often mentioned first and foremost among things that drive people to the polls. But Hurricane Michael - it was - in part, the intensity was impacted by warmer waters, which is of course linked to climate change.

BOUSQUET: I'm skeptical of whether that's going to be elevated as a major issue throughout this campaign for both governor and U.S. Senate. Despite all the problems we've had here with red tide and the algae and sea level rise, environmental issues are not polling nearly as importantly as health care and education and the economy.

What a hurricane does to alter the dynamics of politics and campaigning is it reinforces to people that without government, you have nothing in an emergency. You know, everyone's asking, where's FEMA? Everyone's asking, you know, where first responders are. And they're grateful for the help they're getting from first responders. But everywhere you look, you see the hand of government trying to give people hope.

KELLY: Steve Bousquet - he's Tallahassee bureau chief for the Tampa Bay Times talking about the impact of Hurricane Michael on politics in Florida. Steve Bousquet, thanks so much.

BOUSQUET: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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