Hurricane Ian roils Florida governor’s race

MELBOURNE, Fla. – Hurricane Ian is complicating Florida’s closely watched gubernatorial race, as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist are forced to navigate the potentially treacherous political terrain caused by the storm.

For DeSantis, the storm is a political make-or-break moment. On one hand, it offers the potential for wall-to-wall media coverage that could help boost his profile both at home and nationally as he weighs a 2024 presidential run. On the other, any perceived misstep could cost him heavily, especially in November when voters will decide whether to give him a second term in the governor’s mansion.

“Particularly for DeSantis, who has such a reputation as such a polarizing figure, it’s an opportunity for him to show that he can be bipartisan on some really important issues, some really important actions,” Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said.

“Of course, there’s always a danger — a risk that you’re not perceived as an effective leader, in which case it might actually turn very heavily against you.” 

Meanwhile, Crist, a former Florida governor who resigned his seat in Congress last month, has found himself on the sidelines. His campaign has suspended its advertisements in key media markets amid the hurricane, seeking to avoid any suggestion that he is politicizing a natural disaster.

Asked during a press briefing on Tuesday what he thought of DeSantis’s response to the hurricane so far, Crist demurred, saying that it wasn’t the time to pass judgment on the governor’s performance.

“I don’t want to get into Monday morning quarterbacking before Monday,” Crist told reporters on Tuesday. “I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

“I think what we all need to do is protect our fellow Floridians, doing whatever we can to maintain that safety, watch out for the flooding, listen to local officials. I think that’s the appropriate posture right now.”

DeSantis, a rising conservative star known for his frequent spats with Democrats and the Biden administration, has also used the moment to highlight his willingness to work with the other side.

On Tuesday evening, the governor spoke to President Biden on the phone, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a tweet, adding that the two men committed to “continued close coordination” as Florida grapples with the hurricane and its aftermath.

That came after DeSantis told reporters during a press conference that he hadn’t yet heard from Biden but was open to talking with him.

“I’m happy to brief the president if he’s interested in hearing what we’re doing in Florida,” DeSantis said at a briefing in Tallahassee. “My view on all of this is like, you’ve got people’s lives at stake, you’ve got their property at stake and we don’t have time for pettiness. We got to work together to make sure we’re doing the best job for them. So my phone line is open.”

DeSantis, of course, isn’t the first Florida governor to be tested by a major hurricane. Former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) received generally favorable marks for his handling of a spate of storms in 2004, while Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who served two terms in the governor’s mansion between 2011 and 2019, became known for his almost-ubiquitous media presence during hurricanes.

And while hurricanes always have the potential to help or hurt incumbent governors, DeSantis’s approach to the storm carries extra weight. The midterms are just 40 days away, meaning Hurricane Ian and its aftermath will be fresh on the minds of voters come November. 

One Republican strategist said that perhaps one of the biggest questions for DeSantis will be whether he can communicate empathy in his hurricane response. 

“He’s not known for looking particularly empathetic. That’s just not his leadership style,” the strategist said. “So beyond being an effective manager, it’s a time to show empathy, to tell people that things are going to get better. I think that’s going to be the big one for him.” 

But Hurricane Ian could also cause another headache for DeSantis. Florida’s property insurance market is already incredibly fragile, and the storm has heightened fears that it could deal more damage to the market, potentially handing the governor a political blow.

On Monday, before Hurricane Ian struck Florida, Crist slammed DeSantis as the “worst property insurance governor in Florida history,” getting in one final attack before the storm. 

“Gov. DeSantis let these insurance companies double Floridians rates and they’re still going belly up when homeowners need them most,” he said. “You pay and pay and pay, and the insurance company isn’t there for you in the end anyway.”

For Crist, navigating the storm may prove particularly challenging. While he previously served as Florida governor, he never faced a major hurricane. And now, as a private citizen, Crist will have to figure out a way to stay relevant at a time when Floridians aren’t focused on politics.

“He can try to pitch in and be helpful — make announcements about being safe and certainly pitch in after the hurricane passes,” Jewett said. “But those are all somewhat limited, especially compared to the governor. Crist has a few things he could do but not a whole lot.”

Of course, defeating DeSantis was never going to be easy. Despite the Florida governor’s polarizing persona, his overall approval rating remains above water, and public polling routinely shows him leading Crist. A Suffolk University-USA Today survey released earlier this month found him with a 7-point edge over his Democratic rival.

And barring a major misstep by DeSantis, that appears unlikely to change while Florida deals with Hurricane Ian and its aftermath. In the meantime, Jewett said, both candidates would be wise to tread carefully.

“I think for both the incumbent governor and the challenger, one of obstacles is to make sure they don’t appear political on this crisis and the response,” he said. “That’s a sure way to turn voters off.” 

Tags Biden Charlie Crist Charlie Crist Hurricane Ian Joe Biden Ron DeSantis

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