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Toxic algae becomes major campaign issue in Florida Senate race

Updated 10:28 PM ET, Thu September 13, 2018

(CNN) - Two toxic algae blooms affecting Florida's waterways have become a major issue in the Senate race pitting incumbent Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson against sitting Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

The race has garnered national attention because of the implications the outcome could have for which party controls the Senate. The focus on algae, however, shows just how important local issue are in the race.

A toxic algae bloom known as a "red tide" has gripped more than 125 miles of coastline. It has killed marine life in dramatic volumes and has led to reports of respiratory issues in six different counties.

In the freshwater inland waterways, including major bodies of water like Lake Okeechobee, a toxic blue-green algae has formed as a result of polluted runoff.

The algae blooms impact millions of Floridians, but outside the Sunshine State, its impact is minimal. While voters might be swayed by President Donald Trump, the Republican and Democratic parties and the controversies swirling around Washington in a close race, these local issues may end up making the difference between who wins and loses. Especially when both candidates both have lengthy track records voters can use to help make their final decision.

CNN has viewed a new ad set to run this week where the Scott campaign attacks Nelson's attention to the issue, unearthing decades old video of Nelson as a young congressional candidate in 1990 promising to address the health of Florida's bodies of water. In a not-so-subtle shot at Nelson's age -- he's 75 -- and length of time in office, the ad uses pictures to demonstrate the changes in technology over the course of his close to five decades in elected office. The message: Nelson has had plenty of time to fix this issue and it hasn't worked.

"Thirty years ago, Bill Nelson said he was going to fight to stop the poisoning of lakes and streams across this state and fix Lake Okeechobee, and he kept talking for 30 years, but nothing got done," said Chris Hartline, a spokesperson for the Scott campaign.

But Scott's criticism of Nelson's stewardship of the health of Florida's water has opened the door for the Nelson campaign to remind votes that Scott is the governor and currently responsible for addressing the problem. Scott has issued a state of emergency declaration for several counties, which allows for new streams of funding to deal with the issue. He has also visited the areas to stay connected with those impacted, but the Nelson campaign argues it's his policy positions and his indifference to the environment that is the bigger problem.

"Rick Scott caused this green-algae mess by shamelessly gutting environmental regulation in Florida and drastically cutting funds for the water management districts," said Dan McLaughlin, a Nelson campaign spokesperson. "It didn't help that he appointed his cronies to various regulatory boards."

McLaughlin pointed to Scott's budget decision to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from the state's water management districts. The water management district's principle responsibility is to protect the water supply, quality and natural systems as well as managing floodplains and preventing flooding. They are managed at a local level, but their funding comes from the state.

Conversely, McLaughlin argues that Nelson has been a leader on the issue and delivered results.

"Sen. Nelson grew up in this state and has always fought for a clean environment because he knows how important it is to our tourism-driven economy," said McLaughlin. "Among his accomplishments is the 2006 law that is still keeping oil rigs away from Florida's beaches."

But, the Scott campaign believes Nelson has not done much and the current algae bloom crisis is evidence of his neglect.

"Do-Nothing Bill Nelson can't be trusted to fight for Florida's environment. He's had 30 years already, and he failed," said Hartline.


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