Marc Caputo: Bill Nelson for governor could endanger Charlie Crist, U.S. Senate seat and Democrats

11/17/2013 2:18 PM

11/17/2013 5:12 PM

On exclusive Star Island at a Clinton Global Initiative fundraiser two weeks ago, big-time Democratic donor Neal Roth couldn’t believe he was hearing it.

Again.

“It looks like Bill Nelson’s looking hard at running,” a booster of the Democratic senator said of his interest in campaigning for governor, Roth recalls.

Roth’s first reaction: “Why do we keep shooting ourselves in the foot?”

“Charlie Crist can’t beat Bill in a primary,” the insider, whose name Roth won’t give up, replied.

Roth: “You’re missing the point. We can’t afford a Democratic primary where we come out broke and broken. If Bill wanted to run for governor, he should have done it before Charlie filed.”

There’s a reason for the shock.

After months of ebbing and flowing, the story of Nelson running in 2014 seemed settled in October. Nelson had all but said he wouldn’t do it — and potentially endanger the very Senate seat he won last year.

Now the story of his candidacy has again resurfaced amid new undertones of intrigue, envy, ambition and miscalculation that could even embarrass even the White House.

It also damages Nelson’s brand as a plain-spoken pol. There’s a reason The Tampa Bay Times dubbed him this week’s “loser of the week” in Florida politics.

At the Florida Democrats’ state convention Oct. 26, Nelson repeatedly tried to cast doubt on rumors he would run for governor against incumbent Rick Scott.

“I have no plans to run for governor. And I have no intention of running for governor,” Nelson said, almost exasperated as he noting he had to “repeat myself” for months.

Asked if the former Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat, Crist, was a good member of his new party, Nelson said “yes.” He said “whoever the Democratic nominee is” will beat Scott and get his backing.

What if Crist falters by next spring, would Nelson reconsider?

“If I say anything, you guys are going to run with it,” Nelson said. “And I’m not going to let you run with it.”

Six days later, Nov. 1, Crist filed his paperwork, having met with Nelson beforehand (Nelson also met with Democratic candidate and former state Sen. Nan Rich, too).

But just before and after Crist filed, one longtime Nelson advisor quietly started calling donors. Some say they were told Nelson would run only if Crist falters. A smaller number of Democrats believe Nelson wants to run regardless.

Crist is off to a good start, raising an eye-popping $872,000 in 13 days, not counting a Saturday Biltmore Hotel fundraiser that could have pulled in as much as $500,000 more. And a survey last week by a Republican-leaning firm found Crist leading Scott by 10 percentage points.

In the end, all this might remain just a story, a mess of miscommunication that has led to speculation about the role of Nelson’s inner-circle and even his wife.

The consensus still is that Nelson is highly unlikely to run.

But the effects of the story are already freezing some Democratic donors who are waiting for Nelson before giving to Crist.

Also, the talk shows there are unmistakable doubts at the highest levels of the Democratic Party about Crist’s viability– a sign some Democrats are scared of Republicans despite all the talk of a strong party turnout machine.

Nelson’s defenders say he’s not trying to hurt Crist, but he’s ready to be more of an “insurance policy” if Crist tanks. But the insurance policy also runs the risk of undermining the insured; Nelson’s interest could therefore become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If Nelson does get in:

•  Nelson, a three-time statewide winner, becomes a little more-favored than Crist to beat Scott, according to lawmakers, pollsters and consultants of both parties. However, the last major poll by Quinnipiac University in June, showed each could beat Scott by exactly 10 points, and that Crist and Nelson had similar favorable ratings.
•  In Scott, Nelson faces a candidate like no other, a $100 million attack juggernaut. Though unpopular, Scott has a far tougher team than anything faced by Nelson, who had relatively easy-meat opponents he bested in Democratic wave years. Though Crist’s flip-floppery is an inviting target for Scott, so is Nelson’s record as a career Washington politician who has voted to raise taxes and back Obamacare.
•  Barack Obama has egg on his face. The president used Crist (and vice versa now) in his campaign and tapped him to speak at the national party convention. Top Florida Obama hands work for Crist, who officially became a Democrat at a White House Christmas reception.
•  A safe Democratic U.S. Senate seat — worth untold millions in D.C. — is put at risk. If Nelson becomes governor, he appoints his successor. Expect the GOP-led Florida Legislature to consider changing that — especially because some Nelson donors want him to appoint his protégé: Weston Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee’s chairwoman, reviled by many Republicans.
•  The Florida Democratic Party takes a step back. Lacking a bench, it had one clearly recognizable statewide figure — Nelson — until Crist joined its ranks. Now Nelson could undercut the politician who essentially increased the party’s number of high-profile Florida Democrats by 100 percent.

There are scores of scenarios and conspiracy theories.

And the risks right now seem to outweigh the benefits for Democrats. Why go through the trouble?

Nelson, 71, had wanted to be governor for a long time. And perhaps he’s tired of being a member of a do-little Congress.

Crist put the best face on it all, saying he seeks Nelson’s counsel, respects him and speculates that, if the senator does have concerns “maybe he's just really worried about me. And that's pretty nice.”

A major Democratic donor, Stephen Bittel, said Nelson is simply worried about the state and wants to make sure Crist can win (which incidentally contradicts Nelson’s public statements that Crist or Rich will win).

“There’s no secret sauce here,” Bittel said. “There’s no mystery.”

Bittel said he likes Crist, but loves Nelson more.

But as a Republican governor, Crist did more for Democrats than the last Democrat to hold the post: Lawton Chiles (who incidentally beat Nelson in the 1990 Democratic primary), legislators from both parties said.

Bittel recently spoke with Nelson. He wouldn’t disclose the nature of the conversation, but said Nelson’s “seriously considering it.”

But the man making the bulk of calls on Nelson’s behalf, longtime advisor and staff chief Pete Mitchell, said that isn’t true.

“I don’t think he’s seriously considering it [running] at the moment,” Mitchell said.

At the moment?

“Bill’s position has not changed,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell acknowledged there was discussion about a Nelson candidacy at last month’s Democratic conference (when Nelson was downplaying it).

What was clearly on display at the conference: Crist’s star power.

Crist was mobbed. Nelson wasn’t.

Nelson was no longer the only big blue dog in the room; the happy-as-a-Labrador Crist was soaking up the affection and attention.

If Nelson didn’t feel envy, it’s possible that some members in his orbit — we don’t know who — felt a pang of it. Indeed, after the conference, the Nelson calls appeared to uptick, but Mitchell says that isn’t true and that he was returning calls rather than initiating them.

“Somebody is trying to assign an extraordinary feature to phone calls and it’s an exaggeration,” Mitchell said, noting he talks all the time to movers and shakers about Nelson.

The Crist critics in Nelson’s orbit, after exhausting the Florida press, leaked the most-recent news about the senator last week to MSNBC, which prominently featured the speculation of former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, thumped by Crist in the 2006 race for governor.

Aside from Davis, some Democrats connected to Nelson say his wife, Grace, didn’t appear to be a Crist fan as he reveled in the attention at the state conference.

“That’s crazy,” Mitchell said by way of rebuttal.

Another major Democratic donor John Morgan, an Orlando trial lawyer who employs Crist and frequently chats with Nelson, also found all the talk too tough to believe.

Morgan in the spring tried to persuade Nelson to run and the senator wouldn’t. So Morgan said he felt Crist had the green light to run.

And, he said, don’t expect a Nelson bid, in part because the senator’s cosmopolitan wife prefers life in cosmopolitan Washington to wooded Tallahassee.

“If she had to live in Tallahassee, she would be like Zsa Zsa Gábor in Green Acres,” Morgan joked, referencing the popular 1960’s TV show of a glamorous woman stuck in a podunk town. “The real question is: Who’s the talking pig?”

If only we knew ...

About Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo

@MarcACaputo

Marc Caputo is the Miami Herald's political writer. Hailing from Key West, he graduated from the University of Miami.

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