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Will Hurricane Irma Be A Factor In Florida's '18 Senate Race?

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NOAA
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Hurricane Irma as seen by NOAA satellite

Governor Rick Scott’s being praised for his response to Hurricane Irma; but could that carry over to next year’s U.S. Senate race? 

Scott is gaining praise for his preparation and reaction to the storm, which has left millions of Floridians in the dark and dealing with floods. Hundreds of thousands of others took his advice and left for safer areas.

“This is a deadly storm,” Scott said as Irma battered her way through the Caribbean. “If you’ve been ordered to evacuate, you need to leave now. Do not wait – evacuate.”

Irma comes about 14 months before the mid-term elections in which the U.S. Senate race is expected to come down between Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, and possibly Republican nominee – Rick Scott.

“Ultimately what it comes down to is, a governor is judged on how the state as a whole responds to a crisis,” said Charles Zelden, a political scientist at Nova Southeastern University. “If it goes well he gets all the praise, if it goes bad he gets all the blame.”

Zelden concedes that there are elements of Irma that are beyond Scott’s control which can affect public response to his actions.

“He was doing everything he could to look positive – being active, being visible,” Zelden said. “But ultimately, he’s going to be judged for future political office based on how this state deals with and survives Irma.”

To be clear – Rick Scott has not yet announced whether he’ll seek the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. He does appear to be using the same playbook as that of Gov. Jeb Bush, during the active hurricane years of 2004 and 2005.

“Jeb got a lot of his reputation as being a very effective governor, because of how he responded,” said Zelden. “Jeb looked good, and active, and a leader. There’s no doubt that the current governor is attempting to do exactly the same thing.”

But Rick Scott isn’t alone in canvassing the hurricane-ravaged parts of south Florida. Appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Sen. Bill Nelson was asked about the federal response to Irma.

“It’s been very good, and there is the cooperation between the federal level; the state and the locals,” Nelson said. “That has been seamless, unlike 25 years ago and Hurricane Andrew.”

Now underway is what Nelson calls the “hard, hard slog” of FEMA – working with local governments and volunteers – in the aftermath of the storm. Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio flew back to Washington last week, to vote for an emergency appropriation for Irma recovery.

“Fifteen billion dollars – half of it to FEMA, half of it to local governments,” said Nelson. “But that’s going to run out in a few weeks. So, [Congress is] going to be back doing a special emergency appropriation in the middle of October.”

Nova Southeastern’s Charles Zelden says Nelson may also gain some political points with his reaction to Irma and her aftermath.

“Nelson is going to be stressing the climate change/global warming sources of a major storm like Irma,” Zelden said. “That we weren’t prepared for this enough, because the Governor wasn’t willing to deal with and accept the idea that there is man-made global climate change, that is likely to result in bigger, more powerful hurricanes.”

Another potential problem for Scott could be the deaths of eight residents at a nursing home in Hollywood. Officials called a special cellphone number Scott had given them asking for help, and reportedly got no response. Scott's office says all calls to the hotline were returned in a timely fashion.

“It really comes down to what the evidence is showing,” said Zelden. “But if it could be shown that [Scott] personally was contacted, and his office did not respond, and people died, that could be grounds for him losing an effort to – win a seat in the Senate, for example.”

Gov. Rick Scott has announced new rules requiring nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in Florida to have generators capable of maintaining comfortable temperatures for at least 96 hours after the loss of electricity.

And then there’s Scott’s relationship with President Trump, for whom Scott is a vocal supporter. That may be key in the coming weeks -- according to Politico.com – as Florida seeks more help from Washington.