(Bloomberg) — Republicans running to fill Marco Rubio’s U.S. Senate seat bragged at a dinner in Boca Raton, Florida, last week about opposing red-light traffic cameras and trying to impeach the Internal Revenue Service commissioner. The one thing they didn’t mention was the Zika virus, which could loom large in the November election.
Florida, the ultimate swing state in the race to determine control of the White House and Senate, is on the front lines of the mosquito-borne virus, which has swept through South America and the Caribbean, leaving a trail of birth defects.
Zika may still be on the fringes of the state’s politics, but it could become the sleeper issue of the election. Officials waging war against the virus are already running short of money, even on the edge of Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
“You come here because you are safe,” said Terry Torrens, who is in charge of mosquito control in Florida’s Osceola County, which borders Walt Disney World and has appealed for $900,000 to cover spray trucks, backpacks and personnel. “I need more staff and I need more resources.”
Officials throughout Florida are trying to stave off Zika before it can scare away some of the 105 million people who visit the state each year. But additional funding has been held up by a dispute within the Republican-led Congress.
The Republican Senate candidates may be hoping the Zika issue goes away, but several party leaders, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Rubio himself, are warning of disaster if their party doesn’t act quickly to address a White House request for $1.9 billion in emergency funding.
Democrats certainly won’t let it rest. Zika remains “out of sight, out of mind” for now, said Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. But he predicted the impact will be felt by November.
“Wait ’til the babies start being born. Or wait ’til it starts getting transmitted by the mosquitoes in Florida and the southern United States, which is coming with the mosquito season, the rains, the warm weather, like it has been transmitted in Puerto Rico,” Nelson said.
Indeed, the virus is already spreading in Puerto Rico, where tourists are canceling visits by the thousands, providing a sneak peek of what could befall tourist meccas like Orlando and Miami. Meanwhile, thousands of Puerto Ricans are moving to Florida every month — often to Orlando — because of the territory’s economic crisis.
Bob Cortes, a Republican state representative from central Florida, said he’s already started to see some impact to his small business driving people from Orlando to cruise ships. About a dozen pregnant women have called to cancel so far.
If the government doesn’t act forcefully, Cortes said the blowback could be against career politicians, not necessarily Republicans, and that could cause voters to gravitate to candidates like Donald Trump.
“They are sick and tired of the federal government’s inability to respond to anything,” Cortes said.
More than 100 people in Florida have already tested positive for the disease contracted while abroad, including dozens of pregnant women.
Yet in Osceola County, Torrens has a budget of less than $500,000 for mosquito spraying — not even a penny for every one of Orlando’s record 66 million visitors last year.
Torrens said Zika isn’t something anybody could have prepared for, likening it to a tornado or a hurricane. There’s one difference. If those emergencies had hit, the Federal Emergency Management Agency “would have been here with resources,” she said.
The two Democratic congressmen running for Rubio’s seat have hammered Republicans on the issue and back President Barack Obama’s full $1.9 billion request. Rep. Alan Grayson summed up the Republican approach to Zika as “don’t get bit” in a video critique.
And Rep. Patrick Murphy, who has the backing of the Democratic Party establishment, including Obama, said the issue is personal to him because his niece is pregnant.
It’s more complicated for the Republican Senate contenders, who are jockeying ahead of the state’s Aug. 30 primary. Republican voters aren’t all keen on having the federal government spend extra billions of dollars.
The five Republican candidates have each backed at least some funding. The two who are current members of the U.S. House, David Jolly and Ron DeSantis, voted for a $622 million House Republican plan that would siphon the funding from Ebola and other health accounts.
But Jolly questioned the push by Obama to fund Zika now through the next fiscal year. “Why do we declare a two-year crisis today?” Jolly asked in a recent interview, while also questioning spending money to expand Medicaid in Puerto Rico instead of focusing directly on Zika.