The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida’s Senate race was Rick Scott’s to lose, but he is haunted by his environmental record

Two deadly algae blooms have upended Florida tourism and may have repercussions at the polls.

Dead fish lay near a boat ramp in Bradenton Beach, Fla. From Naples in Southwest Florida, about 135 miles north, beach communities along the Gulf coast have been plagued with red tide. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
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SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. — Molly E. Bowen was raised Republican by her Republican mom on this sliver of crescent coast. In a GOP stronghold where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2 to 1, she proudly voted for Donald Trump two years ago.

Yet she won’t be voting Republican in Florida’s U.S. Senate race. The environment is among her top concerns, and she is not impressed with Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for Senate as his tenure comes to an end after two terms.

“Good riddance,” Bowen said. “I’m going to vote ‘no party affiliation,' and everyone else should, too.”

Forget about a blue wave. Scott is dealing with red tide — a gigantic outbreak of toxic algae that has bedeviled this part of the Gulf Coast for more than a year. Although polls had earlier shown Scott locked in a dead heat with incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, the governor is behind. His environmental record threatens to cost Republicans what had been seen as a prime opportunity to pad the GOP majority in the U.S. Senate.

Scott suspended his campaign to oversee the state’s response to Hurricane Michael, which devastated the Florida Panhandle. Meanwhile, voters whose support he desperately needs on the southern Gulf Coast, where Bowen lives, are contending with two algae blooms — saltwater red tide and a separate outbreak of freshwater blue-green algae — that have hurt tourism and tarnished the Sunshine State’s image as a vacation paradise.

In a race that many thought was Scott’s to lose, polls show his opponent, Nelson could retain his seat. The governor is being taunted as “Red Tide Rick,” and some Floridians have made him the butt of jokes on social media, contrasting the state’s beautiful beaches with the dead fish littering its shores.

Demonstrators criticized Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) on Sept. 17 at a campaign event in Venice, Fla., for his handling of the toxic algae bloom. (Video: Indivisible SWFL/Englewood Indivisible ‏via Storyful)

Scott is haunted by a perception among many voters, conservative and liberal, that his environmental policies made a natural disaster worse. In his first term, the state cut hundreds of millions of dollars from agencies that manage fresh water, laid off hundreds of workers in the environmental protection department, squashed a deal to buy land from sugar farms that pollute water and killed an attempt to increase inspections of septic tanks that soil water and contribute to the algae problem.

The governor’s campaign said it is unfair to connect him to algae outbreaks. “Red tide is naturally occurring — and even scientists at the Mote Marine Laboratory have called out the absurdity of blaming Gov. Scott for this natural phenomenon,” Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman, said in an email Monday. She said the governor declared a state of emergency to combat the problem when tourism declined and coastal businesses suffered.

The campaign did not address a determination by scientists that the failure to lessen pollution flowing into state waters can make natural algae outbreaks much worse.

In the reliably conservative Gulf coast where Bowen lives, it has claimed the lives of dozens of dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and millions of fish — even a rare whale shark. Signs warn bathers to swim at their own risk, lifeguards wear gas masks to avoid the airborne toxins, and the parking meters read: “Free Parking Due To Red Tide.”

Last month, the outbreak spread, looping around the southern point to the southern Atlantic coast — from Miami to Vero Beach. In addition to a sharp drop in tourism, businesses have self-reported nearly $150 million in lost revenue as residents and tourists shun beaches.

Florida’s toxic algae bloom is having a devastating impact on marine life. When dead animals wash ashore, the Mote Marine Laboratory is the first to respond. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Alfredo De Lara/The Washington Post)

With the election a week away, red tide is still a pox on the very districts that Trump carried easily in the last presidential election, the five Gulf Coast counties south of Tampa-St. Petersburg.

“Donald Trump cleared a 200,000-vote margin in the counties most affected by red tide in southwest Florida,” said Joshua Scacco, assistant professor of political communication at the University of South Florida. “If I were Rick Scott, I would be very concerned about those affected areas.” A few weeks ago, polls showed that Scott and Nelson were even in a state where 4.6 million registered voters are Republican and 4.9 million are Democrats.

But in more recent polling, Nelson, a candidate with a decidedly low profile, gained an advantage. The latest Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters this week gave Nelson a 6 percentage point edge.

Three other polls say Nelson leads Scott by between four and eight percentage points. Another four polls say the race is still a virtual dead heat.

Kerry Bowers is a Republican who voted for Scott twice in the previous gubernatorial elections, but, she said, “I won’t again.” The choice leaves her with few options in the Senate race; she’s not voting for Nelson either.

“I feel like Bill Nelson has been in politics for 40 years, since I was a teenager — and I’m 59,” she said. “What has he done? From what I can tell from reading about him, he doesn’t show up for half the meetings. He talks about saving the water and all that, but has he done it? No. I just think it’s time for him to retire.”

Scott was reelected four years ago by a margin of about 1 percent, and political observers say it would be a mistake to count him out. He has a $240 million fortune and money to burn for the final push toward Nov. 6, and Nelson, who has served 18 years in the Senate, is not popular.

Usually environmental issues don’t play a role in elections, political analysts say.

Peter Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll, which asked Florida respondents to rank their most important concerns. “The environment didn’t even make the list,” he said.

Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor emeritus who directed the University of South Florida-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey, demurred. In past years, “we asked what was the major issue, and it always showed up.”

MacManus said younger voters tend to be far more concerned about the environment, and that cohort is rapidly replacing elderly voters who fall from the rolls. “They are 28 percent of the registered voters in Florida."

Under Scott, the budgets of state agencies that manage fresh water were cut by nearly a billion dollars, and a steep drop in pollution enforcement cases coincided with the decimation of staff at the state environmental protection department.

When Scott entered office on a wave of tea party populism in 2011, the South Florida Water Management District was on the verge of closing a deal to purchase more than 150 acres of land owned by sugar-cane farms that sent nutrient pollution into Lake Okeechobee.

The transaction stood to significantly reduce pollution that’s choking the lake. Scott helped nix it, calling the agreement a boondoggle.

Some crucial “No Party Affiliation” swing voters who tend to care more about the environment aren’t happy. Bowen called on Scott to shut down a giant phosphate mining company that produces fertilizers that foul water. When he didn’t, she turned away from the leader of her party.

Nutrient pollution can encourage blue-green algae, such as the killer outbreak that’s streaming out of Lake Okeechobee in two rivers running to the sea. When red tide feeds on nutrient pollution close to shore — the kind of pollution that blue-green algae provides when it blooms and dies en masse — it turns into a monster bloom.

Although Nelson has hammered Scott on the red tide issue in a debate and TV ads, red tide is a naturally forming scourge that was first recorded centuries ago by Spanish explorers. But scientists say politicians can certainly make it worse.

Michael, the deadly Category 4 hurricane that laid waste to the Florida Panhandle, was expected to have at least one benefit: Some scientists said it might blow the year-old red tide from the shore, and Scott’s problems along with it.

But that didn’t happen. Instead it pushed the plague back onto the Pinellas County beaches it had punished for weeks before moving offshore.

For Scott, that’s bad news.

The concern among Republicans that Scott could lose a seat on which the GOP is counting has risen all the way to the White House. President Trump tweeted earlier this month that Scott “has been relentless in securing the funding to fix the algae problem from Lake Okeechobee - we will solve this!”

Parroting the Scott campaign’s message, Trump hit his opponent. “Bill Nelson has been no help!” Nelson’s campaign has called Scott’s repackaging as an environmental steward a joke, and said the governor is finally working on a problem his policies helped cause. The Scott campaign declined to comment on the role the environment has played in the Senate race.

Scott is getting grief across the state. When he swooped into Mojos Real Cuban restaurant just south of Sarasota for a campaign stop, he was taunted by protesters who called him “Red Tide Rick.” After the incident made headlines, Scott canceled an appearance the next day, offering no reason.

Now a video that superimposed the blue-green algae slop and red tide onto a tourism ad promoting the state’s beaches is in wide circulation. In Gainesville, the Florida Museum of Natural History added an exhibit called “Florida’s Summer of Slime.” A haunted house of red tide went up just north of St. Petersburg featuring beachgoers-turned-zombies.

Last week, 800 people showed up.

Schenone said Scott has secured millions of dollars to help communities affected by algae outbreaks. But as red tide heads north along Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts, the number of communities keeps growing.

Bruce Nathan is a gun-loving Republican gubernatorial candidate who finished sixth in the last state primary. He said he won’t vote for Scott or anyone else.

“I think people are so upset with the environment,” said Nathan, a Trump voter who recently switched to NPA. “This has been a situation we’ve never had after eight years of his rule. This is at his doorstep. This will send a lot of Republicans to say I will not vote for him.”

But plenty will give Scott their vote.

Charter fishing captain Terry Wildey has seen red tides come and go. It was confirmed in Vero Beach where he lives but his business hasn’t been affected. “We fish 17 miles offshore, so we’re having no problem with red tide out there.”

Wildey, a Republican who supports Trump, and said he will probably vote for Scott.

“It’s the lesser of two evils,” he said. “But we’re a ticking time bomb down here with the environment.”