State Politics

Campaign ad wars continue as Florida recovers from Hurricane Michael

Satellite image of Hurricane Michael on Wednesday morning.
Satellite image of Hurricane Michael on Wednesday morning. NOAA

Hurricane Michael has come and gone in Florida, but the campaign ad wars that began a week ago as the monster storm formed in the Caribbean rage on.

One day after Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign demanded that TV stations across the state stop airing his Republican opponent’s attack ads, the U.S. Senate campaign of current Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday that it, too, was fighting to knock down a “false and misleading” ad.

In this case, Scott’s campaign says it has demanded that Florida TV stations take down a commercial ripping the governor’s handling of education during his two terms in office. The ad says Scott promised “zero cuts out of state general revenue for education” upon his 2010 election only to slash $1.3 billion from K-12, hack Bright Futures college scholarships and cut $20 million in spending on early childhood education while also lowering taxes for corporations.

The commercial was paid for by Senate Majority PAC, which is supporting Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. It was among the negative TV ads that continued to run in the Panhandle as Hurricane Michael approached Wednesday morning, leading to criticism from former governors who said Florida tradition called for campaign attacks to cease in times of natural disaster.

“During a time that the State of Florida is bracing for Category 4 Hurricane Michael, the station has an obligation to protect the public,” Steve Roberts, attorney for the Scott campaign, wrote in a letter dated Wednesday. “And a false negative advertisement being aired about the current governor during a State of Emergency diminishes the ability of the state’s government to communicate emergency safety information to Florida residents and hurts the State as a whole.”

Chris Hayden, a spokesman for Senate Majority PAC, says the political committee stands by its ad. He also said the PAC eventually pulled the commercial Wednesday in areas bracing for the hurricane after New Republican, a committee supporting Scott, also pulled its ads blasting Nelson.

But Scott’s attorney wrote that while Florida’s education budget did shrink by more than $1 billion during the governor’s first budget, that amount was due in part to the loss of federal stimulus funds. And over the rest of Scott’s tenure, the state ultimately increased education spending.

PolitiFact, a fact-checking organization Scott ironically derided last week as “part of the Democratic Party,” rated the claim that Scott cut education spending by $1.3 billion mostly false. Roberts also cited in his letter a 2014 PolitiFact article that the Democratic Party had oversimplified its claim that the governor had cut education in order to cut taxes for “big corporations” — although in that case the phrase “big, powerful, well-connected corporations” was key to the conclusion.

The PAC’s attack ad correctly identifies Florida’s education system as 40th in the nation based on a US News & World Report review of the state’s K-12 education system, even if it doesn’t note the same report found Florida best in the country for higher education. And it accurately notes that the state under Scott cut merit-based Bright Futures scholarships, although it again fails to note those cuts have more-than rebounded to an estimated $519 million in awards this year as the governor expanded scholarships on his way out the door.

As for early childhood spending, Roberts said Scott has presided over “the largest boost for early learning in the past decade.”

The flap is only the latest to surface in a full week of fighting over TV ads, beginning with the news last weekend that a tropical depression in the Caribbean was likely to develop into a hurricane and head for the Panhandle. The storm eventually turned into a Category 4 hurricane — sparking justified fears over the storm’s coming destruction and political sniping over politically uncouth decisions to continue running attack ads in communities bracing for a direct hit.

Along with Senate Majority PAC and New Republican, the Republican Party of Florida was criticized Wednesday for running negative ads. The party’s commercials blasted Gillum as “corrupt” and sought to tie him to an ongoing FBI investigation into the city of Tallahassee’s Community Redevelopment Agency. The Gillum campaign has since demanded that TV stations stop airing the ad, calling it defamatory.

The RPOF, which ran the ad in consultation with gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis, said it took down the ad Wednesday and Thursday from Pensacola to Tallahassee, but would continue running it elsewhere. Democrats heaped additional criticism on Republicans Friday after it became clear that, at least in Pensacola, the commercial likely continued to run through the storm.

Kevin Cate, a strategist and paid media consultant for the Gillum campaign, said DeSantis was “dishonest before the storm, dishonest during the storm and dishonest after the storm regarding emergency relief.”

A DeSantis campaign spokesman didn’t respond to a text message seeking comment Friday. But RPOF spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice released two emails sent by its ad buyer to multiple television stations in North Florida asking that its ads be paused until after the storm passed. She also said that, for now, the only Panhandle stations where the party intends to run the ad going forward are located in the Pensacola media market, where the storm damage was less severe.

“Given the damage in Panama City and Tallahassee, we have again extended the hold in those areas,” she said. ‘Pensacola stations began running the ad again today.”

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