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Will ‘red tide’ algae in Florida turn some Republican voters ‘blue’?

From rising sea-levels to toxic algae, Florida voters have a host of water problems on their minds this election season. Governor and Republican Senate candidate Rick Scott saw his poll numbers slide as ‘red tide’ algae bloomed. Scott’s critics blame him for cuts to environmental programs. His supporters say a Scott win may mean more help from the Trump administration. Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    On the West Coast of Florida this week toxic algae have started to appear.

    As Lisa Desjardins reports, it has again shed a spotlight on the importance of the environment in these elections.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Rob Merlino spends as much time as he can on the water here in Venice, near Sarasota, on Florida's west coast. A self-employed marketer, he likes to say the pier is his home office.

  • ROB MERLINO:

    Oh, I got something.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    In recent months, though, he was forced off the water. His piece of paradise where he moves to enjoy life has been plagued by environmental problems. He showed us the water today.

  • ROB MERLINO:

    This is not what it would look like normally. It would be more of a bright green when it's churned up with the sand. This is bad.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    And his pictures of it last year.

  • ROB MERLINO:

    See how turquoise it is?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Yes.

  • ROB MERLINO:

    That's what it should look like.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    In Florida, a host of water problems are rising as election issues. The toxic red tide algae spread from the Gulf Coast to Miami, burning beachgoers' eyes and lungs and killing fish, dolphins, sea turtles and manatees by the dozen.

    PBS NewsHour reported on this crisis earlier this fall. In other areas of the state, Lake Okeechobee and on the Atlantic Coast, slimy, rancid blooms of green blue algae spurred health warnings.

    And, in South Florida, there are rising concerns about rising sea levels and climate change. And this year, the environment has become a political force, especially in Florida's U.S. Senate race. The Republican candidate, Governor Rick Scott, saw his polling numbers go south as red tide algae bloomed.

    Scott's opponent says he cut budgets for the environmental programs and that, under his administration, state workers were told not to use the term climate change.

    This is why Scott lost libertarian and usually Republican voting Merlino, who can't believe he's heading toward a vote for Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.

  • ROB MERLINO:

    I know I'm not going to vote for Rick Scott. Bill Nelson is woefully ineffective as a senator. Rick Scott has been overtly harmful as a governor. So I will choose woefully ineffective over overtly harmful every day.

  • MAN:

    We want to make sure that people know whatever goes in that drain is going to end up in the Gulf.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Issues that motivated families on Saturday morning labeling storm drains to try and prevent chemical dumping, which feeds algae blooms and exacerbates red tide.

  • DEB TAMARGO:

    Water is probably the most important issue.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Tampa real estate agent and lifelong resident Republican Deb Tamargo has been built her life around the water and the outdoors. She believes Rick Scott will help, pointing to his leadership during recent hurricanes, saying he only cut environmental funding during lean years, and has increased it recently.

    She believes voting a straight Republican ticket would mean more help from Washington and the Trump administration at a pivotal time.

  • DEB TAMARGO:

    We have a rare opportunity to elect Ron DeSantis as our governor, Rick Scott as our senator. As long as Donald Trump is in the White House, this is a trifecta for the environment. This is a win for the environment.

  • MAN:

    Clean water!

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Meantime, some Floridians are organizing and rallying in reaction to the growing algae problems.

    Democrat Nadine Mrowicki is part of a nonpartisan group, Hands Along the Water.

    Do you think the environment could swing this election?

  • NADINE MROWICKI:

    Absolutely. The people I have talked to in these — all these groups that I'm with for clean water, I'm talking to longtime Republicans, and they're voting Democrat because of water.

    We're not going red or blue or purple or green. We're going water.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    These roadside rallies got smaller after red tides subsided a few weeks ago, but the winds off the Gulf Coast are shifting back, again pushing red tide waters toward what usually are some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and potentially again shifting the political tides in a major election year.

    For the PBS NewsHour, Lisa Desjardins in Venice, Florida.

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