By contrast, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio faces a far riskier decision than Nelson would. Rubio has emerged as a top presidential contender in 2016, but that’s the same year he is up for reelection. Under Florida law, a candidate cannot appear on the same ballot for more than one office, so Rubio ultimately has to decide whether a presidential bid is worth giving up his Senate seat.
There is at least some risk for Democrats, however. Several campaign veterans have noted recently that if Nelson won the 2014 governor’s race, he would then appoint his successor — potentially Crist — but that’s not necessarily so.
In fact, Scott’s term as governor would not officially end until Jan. 6, 2015, so if the Senate vacancy occurred before then, the Republican governor could appoint the replacement.
3. Nelson can win. A fifth-generation Floridian who proudly calls himself a Florida cracker, Nelson is that rare Democrat who can win votes in conservative north Florida as well as urban Broward County.
Despite repeated campaigns casting Nelson as an out-of-touch liberal, he has consistently managed to appeal to moderate swing voters and Republicans as a common sense, nonideological advocate for Floridians. That’s how he managed in November to win nearly 300,000 more Florida votes than Barack Obama did.
When the Tampa Bay Times surveyed 119 political operatives, fundraisers and activists from both parties last week, nearly two thirds said Nelson would be a stronger candidate against Gov. Scott than Crist.
“A lot of mainstream Democrats would probably be more comforted by a Democrat who’s got deep roots in the party, than someone who only recently became a Democrat,’’ noted Ron Sachs, a public relations consultant in Tallahassee and former Chiles aide. “The fact that Sen. Nelson’s not saying no now when he was saying no six months ago is something I think that would hearten Democrats and give the governor some concern, but I would never underestimate the power of an incumbent, including Rick Scott.”
Scott’s approval ratings may be in the cellar, but he’s planning to spend $100 million to ensure a second term.
4. It’s a better job. Chiles quit the Senate in 1989 out of frustration over the lack of compromise and ability to get things done in Washington. That era was a model of efficient collaboration compared to the dysfunction of the U.S. Senate where Nelson now serves.
Even facing a Republican-controlled Legislature, Nelson surely would find serving as Florida’s chief executive far more satisfying than serving as one of 100 senators in today’s toxic partisan atmosphere.
“Lawton served 18 years in the U.S. Senate, but he said every day as governor was more enjoyable to him,” Sachs recalled.
Stay put, Bill
1. Seniority matters in Washington. Turnover in the U.S. Senate has been so great in recent years that after two terms, Nelson ranks 30th in seniority. Given the spate of retirement announcements, he could be one of the few old lions remaining in the upper chamber by 2015.
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s plans to retire after 2014 mean Nelson is poised to become chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Having earned all that seniority and power, why not stay around to use it?