An alarming environmental phenomenon along Florida’s Gulf Coast is seeping into the state’s Senate race, and it may play a decisive role in the GOP’s efforts to unseat the three-term Democratic incumbent.
A toxic green algae bloom in freshwater systems and a red algae tide in the Gulf Coast are spreading along the state's vast coastline, killing troves of fish and prompting emergency beach closures. Scientists say the uncontrolled growth of algae this summer is the worst in the Sunshine State’s history.
Environmental issues are rarely a core component of Republican campaigns, but Florida’s deep reliance on ecotourism industries has made the algae surge a key factor in Scott’s election prospects.
While the two-term governor declared a state of emergency this month that allowed for $1.5 million in emergency funds to deal with the toxic algae, he still faces the challenge of proving he's environmentalist enough to tackle threats that largely stem from climate change.
“Florida Republicans have long been more environmentally conscious than Republicans in other places because people move here for the environmental assets,” said Susan McManus, a Florida-based political analyst. “But the algae bloom has elevated the environment tremendously in Republican-rich Southwest Florida.”
McManus said the challenge is for Scott to attract Democratic voters, many of whom voted for Nelson in the past, in a way that doesn't deter the Republican electorate.
“The environment has long been a Democratic issue, so now I think it puts a heavier pressure on Republicans to prove they are equally pro-environment in a state where the issue of environment has elevated,” she said.
The two candidates are in a statistical dead heat, with Scott at 45.7 percent and Nelson at 44.2 percent in the polls, according to averages compiled by RealClearPolitics.
The Cook Political Report classifies the race as as toss-up.
Both candidates are spending campaign funds on digital and TV advertisements that include finger-pointing for failing to stop the economically devastating algae growth.
Nelson, who's facing the toughest race in his Senate career, has made the algae issue one of the focal points of his campaign by consistently criticizing Scott, who has has a record of slicing budgets for the state's water boards and Department of Environmental Protection.
In a digital ad released this month, Nelson blamed Scott for causing the “algae bloom crisis.”
“Rick Scott cut environmental protections, gave polluters a pass,” the 30 second advertisement says. “The water is murky but the fact is clear: Rick Scott caused this problem.”
In Washington, Nelson has pushed for federal action to address the issue of algae growth, but many of those efforts have been unsuccessful.
He introduced legislation last year that would allocate $110 million over five years to research the causes of large algae blooms and hypoxia, which essentially suffocates sealife. The Senate passed the measure by unanimous consent, but it was never taken up by the House.
Nelson wrote to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last month to request “emergency assistance” to research the health risks of algae blooms on humans. After getting no response, Nelson last week co-sponsored a measure with Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio Democrats face bleak outlook in Florida The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit MORE (R-Fla.) that would provide $1 million in CDC funds to study the blooms.
“The pictures are horrifying enough, but in person … It breaks my heart to see our beaches and rivers foul like this,” Nelson said Tuesday at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee hearing on algae blooms.
“As we act at a federal level to reset and try to clean up the environment, the states have to do their part because the states are invested with the responsibility of water quality,” Nelson said, without naming his Senate challenger.
Environmental groups backing Nelson say Scott has a record of cutting resources for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, which includes the Division of Water Resource Management.
The toxic algae is present in Florida’s coastal communities and neighboring Lake Okeechobee, and environmentalists argue that Scott’s plan to fight the algae bloom by limiting the release of the algae-plagued water flowing to the sea ignores what caused the toxicity in the first place.
“He has not identified pollution as the main culprit here; instead, he has talked about the need to build a stronger dike around Lake Okeechobee to store more water,” said Frank Jackalone, director of the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter. “It avoids the big problem, which is pollution at its source.”
“Nelson is one vote in the U.S. Senate, he doesn’t have the power that the governor of the state of Florida has to mobilize the state resources to tackle this problem and enforce the law, and lead the state legislature to pass new laws,” said Jackalone.
Scott's campaign says Nelson has fallen short on delivering effective environmental solutions.
"No amount of misleading and negative attacks will hide the fact that Bill Nelson is – and always has been – all talk and no action," Scott campaign spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in a statement to The Hill. "Additionally, water management districts independently create their own budgets. Their budgetary decisions, including tax and revenue collection, are ultimately made by the board of each water management district – not the Governor."
A digital ad this month blasted Nelson for being a “talker not a doer.”
“Algae from Lake Okeechobee polluting our waterways, making them an eyesore, reducing our quality of life,” the Scott ad says. “Experts agree that Washington controls the dike at Lake O, so they have to fix it. So we wait for Washington. With Bill Nelson we get more waiting, more talk and more algae.”
Scott's campaign says Nelson has failed to help better regulate the release of waters from Lake Okeechobee, a feeder lake into the Gulf of Mexico that is a major source of toxic algae. Nelson has introduced legislation that would in part authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to start Everglades restoration projects in the area, but the measure never found its way into law.
But Nelson supporters say Scott's image of being environmentally sensitive is just a campaign ploy.
"It’s a total joke. There's his lack of commitment to enforcement and regulation, a lack of commitment to science, and a lack of commitment to leadership to make the tough decisions to tell source pollution industries to clean their act up," said a source close to Nelson's campaign.
"If he brought this to Washington it would be even worse."
--This story has been updated.