Bill Nelson looked like the heavy favorite for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to unseat vulnerable Republican Gov. Bob Martinez in April 1990. But as Martinez continued to beef up his reelection campaign account and then-U.S. Rep. Nelson remained little known to much of Florida, Democrats fretted over Nelson’s prospects.
Soon former Sen. Lawton Chiles confirmed the bombshell rumor: Yes, he would run for governor. Nelson gamely continued campaigning, but it was hopeless against the popular elder statesman. “Walkin’ Lawton” went on to crush Nelson by more than 30 percentage points and then Martinez by 13 points.
More than two decades later, U.S. Sen. Nelson is the elder statesman of Florida’s Democratic Party, and the buzz is growing about him stepping into the governor’s race to take on unpopular incumbent Gov. Rick Scott. With many Democratic leaders worried about the baggage of former Gov. Charlie Crist, Nelson has emerged as the potential savior of Florida Democrats.
The latest noise came Thursday when Roll Call, a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper, reported on its web site that Nelson was mulling over a possible run.
“I’d say that’s true, that he’s considering it,” Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin told the newspaper. “An awful lot of people have contacted him and asked him to do so. But — and as he’s said a number of times — he presently doesn’t have any intention of running. He’s got a job to do as a senator.”
Nelson is a hyper-cautious 70-year-old who just won a third Senate term and by all accounts enjoys his current job. But he is considering the 2014 run and has no incentive to rush into a decision.
Come August or September, after hearing loads of encouragement and analyzing whether negative public perceptions of Scott remain calcified or are improving, Nelson may well decide the job Chiles snatched from him 23 years ago looks awfully enticing.
In the meantime, here are four reasons Nelson should run for governor and four reasons he shouldn’t.
Run, Bill, run
1. It’s about the legacy. Fair or not, Nelson has never reached the iconic status of such Florida Democrats as Chiles, Bob Graham, Reubin Askew or LeRoy Collins — all governors. The “Empty Suit” description Florida Trend magazine gave Nelson in 1990 has never quite disappeared.
What better way to secure his legacy than leaving Washington to wrest back the Governor’s Mansion for his party?
“It would cement his legacy forever as one of the great Florida leaders. His legacy on the courts, boards and legislation could reshape Florida for a generation,” said veteran Democratic strategist Karl Koch of Tampa. “By picking a youthful lieutenant governor he could also re-energize the Democratic bench and develop a sorely needed bench of Florida Democrats who can run statewide and win.”
2. He has little to lose. Nelson’s U.S. Senate term does not end for six years, so even if he lost the governor’s race in 2014 he would remain Florida’s senior senator. This is thanks to a change in Florida’s “Resign to Run” law that the GOP-controlled Legislature passed in 2007, allowing federal candidates to hold one office while campaigning for another.