Politics after Hurricane Florence: Resuming campaigns a 'high-wire act'

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Midterm elections are a month away; some campaigns still suspended

The cleanup from Hurricane Florence’s wrath continues. Roads and homes are still damaged or flooded in places. People are still mourning lost loved ones.

And in the aftermath of one of the worst storms to ever hit the Wilmington region, the midterm election is just a month away. And candidates now — perhaps slowly or gently — have to resume the task of convincing people to vote for them.

“It’s a high-wire act in some respects, but this election is important,” said Harper Peterson, a former Wilmington mayor who has challenged N.C. Sen. Michael Lee, R-N.C. “You have to be sensitive.”

For his part, Lee said he recognizes that the campaign is necessary, even if it has taken a back seat to legislative work and taking care of damage at his home and the law firm he owns.

“The hard part is to see what everybody has been through and what people are still going through and have to think about running a campaign,” he said. “It’s hard to kind of get to the business of the campaign, but it’s important.”

Incumbents and challengers alike said the storm meant ceasing political activity.

“I think in the next (several) weeks there may be a touch of a campaign at the end, but our focus right now is going to be on disaster recovery,” said U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., who recently helped shepherd through Congress a bill that, in part, provides North Carolina with more than $1 billion in recovery aid. “The campaign will be whatever the campaign turns out to be.”

“We haven’t been asking people anything about the campaign,” said Dr. Kyle Horton, a Democrat challenging Rouzer. “We literally have shut down the campaign over the last few weeks.”

Resuming the campaign

Josh Putnam, lecturer of political science at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said that, while he believed there is enough time before the Nov. 6 election to re-engage voters, it has to be done delicately.

“You can’t do it in the normal way. You can’t lead with ‘Please vote for me,'” he said. “You have to kind of lead with sympathy and what you can do to make things, if not right, then better.”

Peterson said he is still moving forward with a planned fundraiser that he shifted to a “soft” event where he plans to distribute supplies like water and food to people who need it. He also released a storm-related ad in which he doesn’t mention Lee and said he would work with Gov. Roy Cooper to rebuild and create policies to better protect communities.

Lee, who sponsored legislation to address some education-related needs from the storm, released a similar video related to the storm called “We Will Rebuild.”

Neither ad was overtly political.

But some signs of politics are returning — and not just the lawn signs dotting the side of roads. Horton, for example, on Thursday sent a fundraising email decrying pollution brought about by the storm — a collection of coal ash, hog waste spills and untreated wastewater was spilled into the region’s rivers during the hurricane — as being a result of “the kind of risk the Trump Administration is taking” in rolling back safety regulations.

Incumbent advantage (or not)

Putnam said storms can have advantages for incumbents, but only if they do the job they were elected to do during the emergency.

“What’s in the control of the folks in elected office is how they respond,” he said. People affected by the storm are “looking to either place blame or credit on this.”

With challengers and incumbents unable or unwilling to campaign — it would be in poor taste to go door to door selling yourself during a storm, candidates said — it was incumbents out in the public eye earning media coverage and having their photos taken.

An example was when Rouzer, a Republican, appeared in Wilmington with Cooper, a Democrat, touring shelters and the region’s emergency operations base at Independence Mall, Putnam said.

“Seeing someone up on the stage with the governor in a bipartisan fashion, as Representative Rouzer was, can play well with people,” he said.

But Horton said an elected official’s job during the storm involves more than handshakes and cameras.

“Governing is not about photo opportunities. It should be about policy … that serves the interests of people in the district,” Horton said.

Rouzer, meanwhile, said governing is exactly what he focused on in the storm’s aftermath.

“We just passed a disaster (aid) package in what might be record time for Congress,” he said.

Putnam said he believed that, with a month to go before the election, enough time will have passed to re-engage voters. He said predictions that more people will vote than in the last midterm election still hold true — storm or no storm.

“We’re far enough out that turnout should be fine. I still expect turnout to be higher in 2018 than it was in 2014,” Putnam said.

Reporter Tim Buckland can be reached at Tim.Buckland@StarNewsOnline.com.