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How an Environmental Catastrophe Could Decide Florida’s Senate Race

Bill Nelson, the incumbent Democrat, is attempting to blame a severe algal bloom on Republican Rick Scott. Will it work?

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Florida’s Senate race, where incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson has been steadily losing ground to Republican Rick Scott, could decide which party controls the Senate next year. And at the moment, it seems to hinge on an unusual issue: algae.

The state is dealing with one of the worst algal blooms in its history. A noxious “red tide” has coated 100 miles of beaches along the Gulf Coast with sludge and the carcasses of thousands of fish, sea turtles, and manatees. A 26-foot whale shark even floated ashore earlier this month—the first ever, The Washington Post reported, to be killed by algae. The crisis hasn’t just driven away tourists and hurt local businesses. It’s caused respiratory illnesses, headaches, rashes, and gastrointestinal distress all along the Florida coastline.

Now, both Scott and Nelson are campaigning on the algal bloom, laying the blame on each other in TV ads and in speeches. Though it would appear to be a local issue, it touches on a range of issues—deregulation, the environment, cronyism—that are playing out at the national level. And for Democrats looking for a foothold in the rapidly reddening South, where some of the nation’s most pressing climate and environmental issues have become a daily reality, the urgency of environmental action may provide the blueprint for competing in heavily Republican districts.

The crisis in southwest Florida is a familiar one, even if its scale is unprecedented. Lake Okeechobee, southern Florida’s largest lake, fills up with pollution from the nearby sugar plantations every year. When rains hit in May, the lake swells behind a feeble and aging dike, and the Army Corps of Engineers, needing to protect the nearby towns, releases the slurry to the ocean. This year, however, record rains combined with the heat and a warmer-than-average Gulf to create an algal explosion of historic proportions. The current red tide has already lasted longer than any other in over a decade, with no signs of abating.

In response, Rick Scott, who is serving out his last term as governor, announced that he’d be touring the blighted St. Lucie River region and earmarking an extra $700,000 to the clean-up efforts. Protesters filled the dock hoping to meet with the governor, but Scott refused to speak with them or the media. He ended up embarking on his boat tour from a different location than was initially announced, peaking frustrations even further.

Scott has long been a target for environmental protesters. After his election in 2010, he wasted no time bulldozing environmental protections that had been decades in the bipartisan making. He gutted the state’s five regional water management districts, slashing their budgets by $700 million and packing their appointed boards with developers. He oversaw the firing of 134 employees at Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. Taking up the mantle of big polluters, he battled and eventually bested the EPA on the implementation of clean water standards.

In 2012, Scott killed a statewide septic tank inspection program and an initiative that would’ve rehabilitated polluted freshwater springs. His appointees on the enfeebled South Florida Water Management District scuttled plans to buy 46,800 acres of sugar company land where the state had once planned to build giant retention ponds to store and filter polluted lake water. Under his watch, spending for Florida Forever, the state’s land conservation program, plunged from $100 million a year in Scott’s first year to a paltry $17 million by 2013. And in 2016, Scott signed into law weaker standards for toxic chemicals that flow into Florida’s rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, a bill described as allowing “Big Ag to police itself when it comes to fertilizer pollution.”

Any of these protections could conceivably have mitigated the damage now being visited upon the southern Florida coastline and its residents. Instead, more pollution, less oversight, and a depleted budget for remediation set the stage for the current algal explosion.

One might expect Nelson’s campaign to be hammering Scott on the issue: They have ample material, ready to be spliced together in attack ads that touch on his environmental record and coziness with the state’s most egregious polluters. In recent years, the Republican governor has accepted over $600,000 from the sugar industry. In 2013, he took a trip to King Ranch in Texas, a famous private hunting lodge, for which Big Sugar generously footed the bill.

But it was the Scott campaign that struck the first big blow, running an ad last week that laid responsibility for Lake Okeechobee and the algal blooms at Nelson’s feet.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake’s dike, is a federal entity, so Nelson, the ad suggests, is to blame based on his time in the Senate. Five days later, the Nelson campaign punched back with a 30-second, text-over-video spot of its own titled “Algae.” “Rick Scott cut environmental protections and gave polluters a pass,” the ad proclaims in block letters atop a slideshow of sludge. “The water is murky, but the fact is clear.”

Unfortunately for Democrats, Nelson isn’t in the strongest position to criticize Scott. He’s proposed bills to study algae, cut Lake Okeechobee discharges, and automatically authorized the Army Corps to start Everglades restoration projects without congressional approval, but none of them has been successful. And when eleven environmental groups petitioned Nelson to get on board with the bipartisan Sugar Policy Modernization Act, which would have curtailed some of the sweetheart price guarantees the sugar industry currently enjoys, Nelson declined.

In fact, campaign finance records show that for 2018, only four senators have accepted more in contribution money from Big Sugar than Bill Nelson. (One of them is fellow Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the only Republican on the list.)

Still, the fight over the algal bloom shows that Democrats can leverage environmental issues into powerful campaign messages. With climate-fueled crises breaking out in every corner of the country, from fires in Northern California to heatwaves in the Midwest, there has never been a better moment to hammer a candidate who forbade his employees from using the words “climate change” at all, as Scott infamously did. This is especially the case with public opinion beginning to coalesce around climate issues. A recent survey found that 73 percent of Americans now believe there’s solid evidence of global warming, and 60 percent think it’s due to human causes, a notable increase since 2010, when Scott first took office.

The issue is particularly salient in the South, the American region hit hardest by climate change and home to the country’s laxest environmental standards. “We think an emphasis on environmental issues will benefit Democrats up and down the ticket, especially as Florida continues to be inundated by flooding from hurricanes in the last few years, with millions of gallons of sewage going into our waterways, Atlantic Ocean, and Gulf of Mexico,” notes Jake Sanders, the president of the Florida Young Democrats.

In swing states like Florida, where Donald Trump won by 100,000 votes, as well as environmentally afflicted red-wall states like Louisiana, there are millions of Americans for whom a robust green policy charter could be attractive. “People in these places understand that things are changing rapidly right in front of their eyes, and it’s raised awareness to a level it’s never been before,” says Denis Dison of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Action Fund.

To pull off such climate-focused campaigns, though, Southern Democrats, particularly in states like Florida, have to take strong stances on climate issues. Nelson has bright spots on his environmental record—he fought to ban oil drilling off the Florida coast, and he sported a 95 percent voting score from the League of Conservation Voters in 2017. But he would be in a far stronger position on the red tide crisis if he’d endorsed a bolder spate of green policies, such as a major remediation plan for Florida’s waterways and stiffer punishments for polluters.

There are signs that he’s taking the hint. During a recent visit to one of Lake Okeechobee’s most polluted waterways, Nelson, more wonk than firebrand, mustered this: “I was playing nice-nice when I was here before, but I’m going to lay out the truth. Governor Scott, in the last eight years, has systematically dismembered and dismantled the environmental agencies of the state of Florida.”