BONIFAY, Fla. (AP) — It’s less than two weeks before Election Day, but instead of campaigning Florida Gov. Rick Scott is talking to elementary school students about whether they’ve gotten power back.
Then it’s off to a disaster recovery center where he winds up hugging a woman after she tells him how two members of her husband’s family died during the fury of Hurricane Michael as it ripped through Florida’s Panhandle. During a lengthy conversation, she urges him not to forget about the rural communities just below the Alabama border that are still struggling in the aftermath of the deadly storm.
Embroiled in a razor-tight and expensive battle with Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson that could determine control of the U.S. Senate, Scott is spending his day in two neighboring counties that have a total of 27,000 registered voters in the nation’s third largest state. It underscores the challenge he faces in the final stretch of the campaign: balancing his responsibility as governor against the demands of a closely-contested campaign in one of the nation’s most critical swing states.
It’s not that his campaign has shut down: It’s still spending millions on a blizzard of television ads, much of it paid from Scott’s own personal fortune, including one that touted his “leadership” responding to Hurricane Michael and other ads ripping into Nelson. Scott also appeared this week on Fox News to talk about the race, and his campaign announced Friday that he would be back on the campaign trail this weekend. He is also planning to appear alongside President Donald Trump next week at a political rally in southwest Florida.
“I don’t think about politics, I think about my job,” contends Scott, who’s dressed in his now-trademark Navy cap, taupe jeans and blue shirt instead of his usual suit. “The governor should be leading the response effort.”
Scott had been walking a tight-rope: Ignore the Panhandle counties in a moment of need and risk criticism, but at the same time news about the storm and Scott’s efforts have been fading in areas not dealing with the daily grind of rebuilding and recovery.
“People like to see their governor here,” said Faye Yongue, who works for a Panhandle education consortium and is having lunch a few feet away from Scott and the local sheriff in a barbecue restaurant. “This is still Florida.”
For Scott, the focus on storm recovery means spending time talking to power and telecommunications company executives, coordinating with federal disaster officials or touring damaged Tyndall Air Force Base.
But Scott’s attention to the storm allowed him to sidestep the barrage of criticism he has weathered in recent months on the campaign trail. He’s been put on the defense over the algae and red tide that have plagued both coasts, cuts to education funding he pursued in first year as governor and his relative silence over Florida being part of a an ongoing lawsuit to undermine the Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Nelson’s campaign contends Scott has used the hurricane as some sort of cover.
Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Nelson’s campaign, in an email to reporters said the governor was “politically deceitful and using the hurricane to hide from voters.”
Scott, however, has pushed back, saying Nelson should also be spending time in the region since federal agencies are also helping with the recovery. In the last few days, Nelson has campaigned with former Vice President Joe Biden and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in several places across the state.
“I’m shocked that Sen. Nelson came down for three or four days of photo ops and then decided he’s going to campaign and said there’s nothing else he can do,” said Scott, referring to a comment Nelson made last week in Tampa. “This takes everybody’s effort.”
McLaughlin blasts back and points out that on the same day Scott was in the towns of Chipley and Bonifay that Nelson had visited the small town of Lynn Haven, a community near Panama City that saw its municipal buildings and police department battered by the storm.
“Scott’s assertion that he was there and left is completely false,” McLaughlin said. “It’s like a doctor coming out of the emergency room after an operation. It doesn’t mean the doctor is quitting.”
Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.