Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
UPDATE, Friday Sept. 21, 9: 50 a.m. ET: This post was updated to include a statement from Gov. Scott’s campaign provided after the story was published.
No campaign wants its planned speaking tour overshadowed by coverage of throngs of angry protesters. But that’s the situation Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) found himself in this week as he hopscotched across the state on his “Make Washington Work Bus Tour.”
Scott was booed out of a Venice restaurant after only 10 minutes on Monday by protesters calling him “coward” and “Red Tide Rick,” a reference to the toxic red tide algal blooms currently choking the state’s Gulf coast. His campaign canceled an event in his hometown of Naples the next day. At his final stop in Orlando on Tuesday, a smaller group of environmental activists drew headlines, chanting, “Que se vaya” in Spanish.
Overlapping, persistent environmental crises plaguing the Sunshine State’s heavily-populated coasts are becoming a liability in a campaign that has so far been a smooth ride for Scott, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).
In a race that is shaping up as crucial for both parties’ efforts to win the Senate majority, even the algae counts.
“It is noteworthy in the sense that this is the first time in the governor’s picture-perfect campaign that you’ve seen things like major opposition and protest at his events,” Florida GOP lobbyist Justin Sayfie told TPM.
“People want someone to blame,” Sayfie continued. “You have tourism going down; you have the stench not just of the dead fish but of the algae bloom in the air. You want to hold somebody responsible.”
In a Friday statement, Scott spokesman Chris Hartline dismissed the criticism as Democrats’ “attempt to score political points before an election.”
“It’s ridiculous for Bill Nelson and his fellow democrats to try to blame Governor Scott for an issue that’s been neglected by the same federal government Nelson has been a part of for decades,” Hartline said.
Some voters do appear to blame the Scott administration for the outbreak, which he declared an emergency in August. A Florida Atlantic University poll released Thursday found Nelson closing in on Scott, with the governor narrowly ahead 42 percent to 41 percent. Asked whose policies were most responsible for the problems plaguing the state’s waters, 32 percent of voters said state government, compared to only 16 percent for local government and 13 percent for the federal government.
“Should the red tide be as significant as it is now, it’s going to be on a lot of voters’ minds in November,” FAU political science chair Kevin Wagner told TPM Thursday, noting that “a clear plurality of Floridians” appear to blame the state government.
Wagner, who helped oversee the FAU poll, noted that some of the worst-affected areas are concentrated on the reliably Republican southwest coast of the state.
“If Scott’s vulnerable in that area of Florida, that’s going to be a very difficult situation for him because that tends to be an area where Republicans get a lot of votes,” he said.
Red tides are a perennial problem on the Gulf Coast. Caused by a marine organism known as Karenia brevis, these algal blooms occur naturally, intensifying in the period from October through February. There is little understanding among scientists why some years suffer worse red tides than others, though they’re believed to be exacerbated by pollution including fertilizers and leaky septic tanks. Unfortunately for Scott, 2018 has seen one of the worst, most enduring blooms on record.
The algae makes water toxic for marine wildlife, and the carcasses of pale, bloated dolphins, manatees, fish, eels, and sea turtles have piled up along shorelines. Residents, particularly the elderly, have reported respiratory distress from the Karenia brevis.
At the same time, a separate blue-green bloom has flourished in central Florida’s freshwater Lake Okeechobee. Runoff containing human waste and fertilizers creates the algae and flows out of Okeechobee’s clogged estuaries onto beaches along the southeast coast, which have closed for swimming due to feces-related bacteria in the water.
Veteran Florida GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich said that he doesn’t believe there’s a “credible” way to blame the Scott administration for worsening environmental issues that have long plagued the state.
But Stipanovich acknowledges Scott is “on the defensive on this issue” because the blame people are trying to attribute to him on the environment “is at least speciously plausible.”
“If you’re trying to press home your advantages, whether it’s jobs, the economy, tax cuts or whatever, you’re not succeeding if you’re defending yourself on some hot-button issue,” he said.
Environmentalists, Florida Democrats and several local newspaper editorial boards have pointed to the algae problems as another mark on what the Ocala Star-Banner called Scott’s “putrid environmental record.” During his first term in 2011, Scott cut $700 million in funding from Florida’s water management oversight. He is seen as an ally to Big Sugar, one of the state’s largest polluters. In his push to jumpstart Florida’s economy, Scott has drastically rolled back environmental regulations including required septic-tank inspections.
His administration also forbade state officials from using the terms “climate change” or “global warming,” as the Florida Democratic Party reminded voters in a recent tweet.
“The sight of green slime in our waterways and dead fish on our beaches is a visible sign of just how bad a job Rick Scott has done as governor,” Nelson communications director Ryan Brown told TPM in a statement.
The Scott campaign has pointed fingers at Nelson, in turn, saying that he came into office pledging to clean up Florida’s environment and has not managed to do so. At his stop this week in Orlando, Scott said that he respected protesters’ “right to what they think” about the issue, but that his administration is “doing everything we can right now.”
“We need really good easterly winds right now,” Scott told reporters. “I wish it would get off our beaches. I know so many people would enjoy our beaches and enjoy our fishing.”
Some Republicans in the state see the algae problems as a non-issue in the Senate race, arguing that the economy and public safety are more important factors driving voters to the polls.
GOP strategist Mike Hanna told TPM that the red tides were an issue during the two terms he served alongside Jeb Bush in the governor’s mansion, and will remain one long after the midterms.
“The oceans are a big part of our economy, but this is not what’s going to drive the vote in November,” Hanna told TPM. “This is an issue of the week.”
In some of the hardest-hit areas, though, the blooms do seem to be moving voters. The August primary results saw Scott sailing to victory with 89 percent of the vote, but hurting in the Treasure Coast’s Martin County, where the Lake Okeechobee algae has poisoned waterways.
As Stipanovich points out, the coastal areas affected by these twin blooms continue to expand by the day. Just Thursday, reports went out that the red tide outbreak has crept past Tampa Bay onto the shores of northwest Florida.
“This can be one of those issues that could very well be pivotal in a close election,” FAU’s Wagner said. “I suspect that talking about red tide is not what Scott’s campaign wanted to be doing at this point.”
The Texas man who founded a company that develops and publishes blueprints to create 3-D printed guns was charged with child sexual assault Wednesday, according to the Austin Statesman.
An affidavit reviewed by the newspaper alleges that a girl under the age of 17 told her counselor at the Center for Child Protection that she had sex with a 30-year-old man, whom she identified as Cody Wilson, at a local hotel on Aug. 15. The man paid her $500, according to the report.
Wilson is not yet in custody, according to the Statesman. He did not immediately respond to TPM’s email requesting comment, and his cellphone inbox was full.
Texas considers sexual assault a second-degree felony punishable by between two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Wilson allegedly met the girl on SugarDaddyMeet.com and began exchanging messages with her. He went by the username “Sanjuro,” per the affidavit reviewed by the Statesman. In the lead-up to their encounter, they shared nude photographs, and Wilson, via text, allegedly shared his name and told her he was a “big deal.”
The Austin resident is currently embroiled in a high-profile battle with the federal government over the legality of the open-sourced 3-D printed gun blueprints his company, Defense Distributed, has shared online. After the State Department in 2013 ordered Wilson to pull the plans from the internet, Wilson sued the Obama administration on First Amendment grounds. The Trump administration settled with Wilson earlier this year, allowing him to share the 3-D weapons plans online.
Various states have subsequently sued Wilson on national security and public safety grounds, and a Seattle federal judge has ordered him to halt the distribution of his plans.
Wilson also served as the founder of the now-defunct Hatreon, a far-right answer to Patreon, a platform that allows content creators to solicit paid subscriptions from supporters.
After last summer’s deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Wilson told TPM that he spent “12 grand a month” of his own money to fund the site, which he called a “passion project.” He said he was personally “not right-wing” but was “sympathetic” to the “alt-right” and didn’t believe they should be “banished from the internet.”
Democrat Tony Evers is pulling ahead of Scott Walker in the race to become Wisconsin’s next governor, according to a Marquette University Law School poll released Tuesday.
Evers earned 49 percent of support among likely voters, compared to 44 percent for Walker. This is the first time since Evers won the nomination this August that he has led Walker in the Marquette poll, regarded as the premium in-state survey. Last month, the two nominees were tied at 46 percent.
Walker previously won his seat in GOP wave years, and his crackdown on voting rights and sweeping cuts to the state education budget have bruised his reputation among Wisconsin voters.
Support for Evers, the state schools superintendent, appears to be bolstered by independent voters. Per Marquette, GOP support for Walker and Democratic support for Evers are both over 90 percent. Among independents, the breakdown is 52 percent for Evers and just 32 percent for Walker.
Results also looked good for Democrats in the U.S. Senate race, with incumbent Tammy Baldwin expanding her lead from two points to 11 in her race against GOP challenger Leah Vukmir. Baldwin earned 53 percent of likely voters compared to 42 percent for Vukmir.
The Marquette survey was conducted among 800 registered Wisconsin voters from Sept. 12-16. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points
Hours after Christine Blasey Ford went on the record accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of attempted sexual assault, Kavanaugh’s far-right supporters were hard at work trying to explain away the allegations.
One particularly flimsy conspiracy theory circulating in recent days is that Ford is acting out of revenge because Kavanaugh’s mother, a Maryland state judge, foreclosed on Ford’s childhood home.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee called President Trump’s move to declassify Justice Department materials related to the Russia investigation “a clear abuse of power” that risks exposing U.S. intelligence-gathering strategies.
In an unprecedented move, President Trump has ordered the Justice Department and FBI to publicly release a handful of former top government officials’ unredacted texts about the Russia investigation.
The affected officials include former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former senior FBI official Peter Strzok, former FBI attorney Lisa Page, and former Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr, according to a Monday statement from the White House.
Trump has attacked all of these individuals publicly, smearing them as part of a “deep state” effort to undermine his investigation by launching the “witch hunt” investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The president is not supposed to directly involve himself in ongoing federal investigations.
Trump has also directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Justice Department to immediately declassify a number of documents related to the Russia probe, the White House announced.
The relevant documents are the FBI’s application to obtain a surveillance warrant against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, all FBI interviews prepared about the Page surveillance applications, and all interviews the FBI conducted with Ohr about the Russia investigation.
The White House claimed Trump is making these requests “for reasons of transparency.”
The special counsel’s office announced in a Monday court filing that it is prepared to sentence former national security adviser Michael Flynn, suggesting his months of cooperation with the federal government’s investigation has come to an end.
After months of insisting on his innocence, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort finally flipped, agreeing in a plea deal announced Friday to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In a D.C. federal courtroom, Manafort pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy against the United States and one count of obstruction of justice through witness tampering.