Superstorm Sandy politics shadow Hurricane Matthew

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Hurricane Matthew is bearing down on the Southeastern United States — with possible political consequences in the weeks to come. 

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit New York and New Jersey just a week before Election Day, creating an October surprise that left President Obama walking arm-in-arm on the Jersey Shore with Gov. Chris Christie, then a top surrogate for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. 

{mosads}The bipartisan embrace was credited with helping make Obama look presidential — and earned Christie criticism that he is still trying to live down.

The circumstances surrounding this year’s storm are different. 

Obama is not on the ballot and Matthew is expected to make landfall farther out from Election Day, meaning the focus on the storm could wear off by the time voters head to the polls.

But the deadly hurricane could still could shake up the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as well as competitive Senate and gubernatorial races in Florida and North Carolina, where it is expected to hit. 

“It could dominate U.S. news media for several days, not unlike a terrorist attack,” said Republican strategist and Hill contributor Matt Mackowiak. 

“The coverage of the candidates, such as who said what where, will be a small part of the newsreel,” he added. “It freezes the race for several days, and we don’t know when it will end.”

If the damage from the storm is as bad as feared, it could prompt Clinton and Trump to adjust their schedules in order to avoid split-screen coverage of the candidates attacking one another alongside images of devastated homes and businesses. 

The president was already forced to scrap a Wednesday trip to Florida, which included a campaign stop for Clinton. The Democratic and Republican nominees are not scheduled to visit potentially affected areas over the next few days. 

In the aftermath of Sandy, Obama dropped off the trail to visit Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington.

Romney converted a planned rally in the swing state of Ohio into a hurricane relief event and suspended fundraising emails along the East Coast.

Mackowiak argued any pause in the campaign, even just for a few days, would hurt Trump, who is trailing Clinton in national and battleground state polls. 

“It can take time off the clock, time Trump needs to make up ground in the battleground states that will decide this thing,” he said. “There’s just no way to slice this in a way it looks good for Trump, unless the federal response is a total disaster.”

Obama is working to show his administration is readying a swift response to Matthew, especially after he took criticism from Trump in August for not visiting the site of flooding in Baton Rouge, La., soon enough. 

In lieu of his Florida trip, the president paid a visit to FEMA’s headquarters on Wednesday for an in-person update on the storm. During a post-briefing photo op, he urged people to obey preparation instructions from local officials. 

“This is something to take seriously,” he told reporters. “We hope for the best but we want to prepare for the worst.”

Matthew, a Category 3 storm, is expected to first reach Florida as soon as Thursday evening, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). The storm could hit coastal areas of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina by the weekend. The NHC is warning of “life-threatening” floods in parts of Florida’s East Coast. 

All four states are governed by Republicans. And while Obama describes disaster-relief efforts as non-partisan, politics have sometimes crept in. 

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), a Trump supporter, has publicly sparred with Obama over requests for federal emergency response funding that have been turned down. 

Most recently, the administration rejected a $5 million request to deal with the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Last year, Obama said no to Scott’s demand for federal dollars to clean up flooding in the Tampa Bay area. 

No such dustup has occurred yet, and Obama has provided federal relief funds to Florida after major disasters, most recently following Hurricane Hermine last month. 

GOP officials also have to thread the needle between establishing a friendly, productive relationship with the administration during a time of emergency while also not getting too cozy with Obama — like Christie did. 

That goes for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a rising GOP star, as well as North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and Sen. Richard Burr, who are both running in close reelection races. 

Those leaders could take a page out of Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) playbook following the Orlando shooting. 

The Florida senator, who is running for reelection, flew on Air Force One with Obama to a memorial service there and was photographed shaking hands with — but not embracing — the president. 

The encounter never became a major campaign issue. Rubio currently leads his Democratic opponent, Rep. Patrick Murphy, by more than 5 points, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. 

“These things can be helpful if you’re on the case and demonstrating executive leadership,” said Mackowiak. 

There’s also the concern that extensive damage could prevent voters from casting their ballots. 

Matthew is expected to hit more than a month from Election Day, but early voting begins in North Carolina and Florida on Oct. 20 and Oct. 29, respectively. 

Michael McDonald, an elections expert the University of Florida, said interruptions in mail service or damage to polling places could cause problems for early and absentee voters. 

But citing the example of New Jersey, which made adjustments to its early voting schedule after Sandy, McDonald expressed confidence the storm would not have a significant impact on the outcome.

“Something like this, where we know in advance there is going to be an issue, people can start preparing now and start casting ballots as necessary,” he said. “I really do think early voting will provide that relief that we didn’t have otherwise.”

Tags Donald Trump Florida Hillary Clinton Hurricane Matthew Marco Rubio New Jersey North Carolina Richard Burr South Carolina Superstorm Sandy

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