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The dirty side of the storm: Attack ads fly as Hurricane Michael strikes

David Smiley, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MIAMI -- Before Hurricane Michael's 155-mile-per-hour winds blasted the Florida Panhandle Wednesday afternoon and eventually knocked out the power to thousands of households, scores of voters watching TV for news of the approaching hurricane were also presented with dark and stormy ads about statewide political candidates.

Breaking what politicians claim is an unwritten rule of campaign decorum, Democrats and Republicans alike continued running attacks on their opponents despite the oncoming storm. That meant hundreds of thousands of people in the storm's path spent the morning receiving updates and cautions from Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum only to immediately receive information during commercial breaks from anonymous narrators explaining that the men -- who are seeking new offices -- are in fact not to be trusted.

None of the campaigns involved in the race was directly responsible for the commercials, one of which called Gillum "corrupt" and another that called Scott "another shady millionaire who doesn't look out for you." But the two officials were quick to condemn their opponents, leading to finger-pointing and squabbling amid an unprecedented natural disaster.

"My opponent has decided to leave all of his negative advertising up all the way across the Panhandle including right here where we're preparing our citizens for a Category 4 hurricane impact," Gillum, a Democrat, said about GOP nominee Ron DeSantis during a morning interview on MSNBC. "Those news alerts are obviously on commercial breaks being intermittently interrupted by negative campaign ads that are untrue. I think that's unfortunate. We can't recall a time where candidates for statewide office have not pulled down negative ads during hurricane season."

The back-and-forth over campaign ads has been ongoing for days and illustrates the stakes involved in hurricane politics. Elected executives such as Gillum and Scott gained days of valuable media exposure due to their roles in storm preparations while former congressman DeSantis and incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., stood on the outside looking in -- with Nelson literally being kept out of an emergency managers meeting Monday in Tallahassee.

While the subtle politicking of disaster management is deemed acceptable, the overt politics of campaign messaging is not.

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"The tradition in Florida was that it was not only inappropriate to be running negative ads (during a hurricane) ... but also it wasn't good politics," said former Democratic Gov. Bob Graham. "People responded to candidates who, at a time they were deeply concerned about their families and neighbors' safety, didn't want to be bombarded with negative ads."

"Campaigns should shut down the ads in the impacted areas," agreed former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who oversaw the response to more than a half-dozen named storms during his two terms. "The exclusive focus needs to be on preparing, rescuing and recovering."

The sniping started immediately Sunday, as soon as forecasts made it clear that Hurricane Michael was likely heading straight for the Florida Panhandle, and would also result in some kind of a strike on the state capital. The Republican Party of Florida was still airing ads criticizing Gillum's response to Hurricane Hermine in 2016, and Democrats, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, called on DeSantis and state Republicans to take their spots down.

Gillum's campaign said Sunday night that it was taking down its commercials from Pensacola to Gainesville.

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