Gov. Rick Scott received generally high marks for his handling of the hurricanes hitting Florida and its sister territory, Puerto Rico, but his PR team lately has been working ferociously to push back against assorted reports raising questions about his emergency management record before and after the storms hit.
Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio joined calls for a congressional investigation into the deaths of 14 Floridians in a sweltering Broward County nursing home. Those deaths have prompted questions, mostly from Democrats, about the Scott administration's oversight of nursing homes, about his deleting voicemail messages from that nursing home seeking help restoring power after Irma hit, and his administration's practice of keeping secret from consumers information on nursing home inspection reports.
The Times/Herald has documented widespread problems with emergency shelters across the state, including a 2016 audit of the Division of Emergency Management warning that it was ill-prepared for a major disaster. CBS Miami reported that Scott's administration quietly entered into an emergency debris removal contract that dramatically increased costs and undercut companies already contracted to do the work. Scott's office called the report "one-sided" and "false."
The governor is expected to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018. The political implications of Scott's leadership before, during and after the storms are likely to linger well after the debris piles are picked up.
Wondering what conventional wisdom holds among Florida's political elites, we launched another exclusive Florida Insider Poll:
Do you expect the hurricanes that hit Florida and Puerto Rico ultimately to be more helpful to Gov. Scott's reputation or damaging?
Among the nearly 200 campaign professionals, lobbyists, money-raisers and political scientists we surveyed, an overwhelming 61 percent said the storms would help Scott's reputation. Even among registered Democrats, only one in three said his performance would damage his reputation.
"Rick Scott's leadership during the hurricane has made the Democrats go bananas. After the storm, I enjoyed scanning my Facebook news feed and seeing countless liberals & Democrat friends praising the governor for his strong leadership," said one Republican.
From a Democrat: "Scott will benefit from his handling of the hurricanes, which was outstanding, but the Hollywood nursing home deaths will be used effectively by Nelson to undermine Scott's credibility just enough. Nelson hangs on, but the hurricanes made it closer. If we get hit in 2018 by a storm the scope of Irma, though, all bets are off. Should Scott handle that storm as well, he probably wins."
The Tampa Bay Times allows people to weigh in anonymously in the rare case of our Florida Insider Polls to encourage frank assessments from people closely involved in the political process.
"Scott will get credit for pre-hurricane warnings but his post-hurricane response on nursing home deaths, debris removal, lack of proper placement of supplies and not responding to phone calls and inquiries sully the pre-hurricane goodwill," a Florida Insider registered without party affiliation said. "Voters, however, will remember all the positive pre-hurricane coverage, so Scott will benefit."
Less than 20 percent said they expected the Hollywood nursing home deaths to be a significant liability in Scott's likely Senate bid, while two-thirds said it would not.
But when asked whether Jeb Bush or Scott was more effective in handling hurricanes, a whopping 67 percent said former Gov. Bush. The registered Republicans were closely divided on that question, while more than 83 percent of the Democrats and Insiders registered to neither major party gave higher marks to Bush.
"This governor projects very little empathy because of his 'cold fish' personality and persona and his response, compared to Gov. Bush, was lacking," a Democrat said. "His secretive way of not allowing the media to access the emergency response briefings so that the public can know exactly what is going on was also poor judgment on his part."
Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater vowed after Irma that his campaign for governor will accept no political contributions from Florida's utilities, saying they should spend their money hardening their systems rather than courting politicians. Florida's utilities have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican front-runner Adam Putnam.
What's worse than taking so much money from a controversial interest group that you can be attacked as an anti-consumer lap dog for the industry? Not receiving that money.
That, at least is the view of most of our Florida Insiders. Nearly six in 10 said a statewide candidate is better off receiving that money and risking political attacks than not receiving that money.
Contact Adam Smith at email@example.com. Follow @AdamSmithTimes.