Only hours before Gov. Rick Scott made his plans to run for the U.S. Senate official, the Bill Nelson reelection campaign sent out a warning to their supporters — and a request.
Polls show the race to November extremely tight little more than half a year out. And if Sen. Nelson is going to keep his seat, he said, he needs money. Lots of it. “Florida’s must-win Senate race is a statistical TIE, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Nelson, a three-term incumbent and the last statewide elected Democrat left standing in Florida, has been striking this same desperate chord for months, with a challenge from Florida’s Republican governor known long ago to be all but certain. Already in his fifth decade in public office and seeking a sixth, Nelson is running scared and hardly bashful about showing it.
The veteran Democrat has never faced an opponent quite like Scott, an independently wealthy businessman with sky-high name recognition among voters and a formidable campaign machine bolstered by incumbency. But the same could be said of Scott, whose entry into the race sets up an epic clash in one of the country’s most important mid-term battle grounds.
“I’ve always run every race like there’s no tomorrow — regardless of my opponent,” Nelson, who once flew on the space shuttle, said Monday in a statement. “While it’s clear that Rick Scott will say or do anything to get elected, I’ve always believed that if you just do the right thing, the politics will take care of itself.”
As Scott has run a stealth campaign the last year, Nelson has quietly prepared for the challenge. He’s sought out financial and strategic help from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, moved to ramp up his own lagging fundraising and used backhanded slaps to try and soften up Scott on everything from his response to hurricanes Irma and Maria to the governor’s cozy relationship with President Donald Trump.
More powerful than former state CFO Alex Sink and former Gov. Charlie Crist — Scott’s previous vanquished opponents — Nelson used a CNN Parkland shooting townhall that he attended — and Scott skipped — to say how much guts it took to answer questions from grieving families. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, a storm that displaced thousands of likely voters from Puerto Rico and landed them in the Sunshine State, Nelson was able to match Scott’s tours of the island with his own visits.
Nelson, 75, lacks flamboyance. But Pete Mitchell, the senator’s former chief of staff and longtime campaign manager, said the senator stacks up well against the workmanlike Scott. He said Nelson has used positions on the commerce and armed services committees to lobby for Florida’s 20 military bases, develop early 5G wireless networks in Florida, and push for the reauthorization of NASA funding, among other economic priorities.
“Bill’s a workhorse, not a show horse,” said Mitchell, who believes Nelson’s economic work in the Senate offsets Scott’s successful jobs-themed approach to politics. “He’s accomplished a great deal.”
But Scott is renowned for his own work ethic and his ability to almost always stay on message. He rolled out his campaign Monday in Orlando, immediately talking up the state’s response to Puerto Rico — where thousands of displaced islanders are expected to become Florida mid-term voters — and then pivoting to attack “career politicians.”
“This concept of career politicians has got to stop,” said Scott, who never mentioned Nelson by name. “We have to have term limits on Congress.”
While Nelson was constrained by federal campaign laws in how much money he could raise, Scott never stopped campaigning during his eight years in Tallahassee. The governor raised millions for his now-dormant Let’s Get to Work political committee, which he used to continuously broadcast his message of job creation to voters across a state with 10 media markets.
Nelson, meanwhile, hasn’t faced an election since 2012, back before Twitter posts and Facebook and YouTube ads were staples of campaign messaging, and absentee voting exploded in the state. Spending on Florida’s Senate seats more than doubled by the time Republican Sen. Marco Rubio won reelection in 2016, and is sure to increase again this year.
“Bill Nelson hasn’t been on the ballot in six years and the world of campaigning has changed a lot in that time,” said Steven Vancore, a Democratic consultant and pollster in Florida. “What Rick Scott is extremely good at is identifying voters operationally. And if this race is inspiration versus operation, you’ve got to give the operational advantage to Rick Scott.”
Vancore, whose Clearview Research poll showed Scott just ahead of Nelson (but within the margin of error) last month, said Scott’s campaign team has shown an unprecedented ability to identify Republican-leaning people who aren’t die-hard voters and motivate them to cast ballots, often through the mail. He thinks that allows the governor to negate some of the anti-Trump wave that has Democrats suddenly sweeping competitive races like a Republican-leaning House district in Sarasota last February.
But will Scott, who chaired a pro-Trump Super PAC and has been all-but-endorsed by the president, be able to escape all the consequences of being tied to an unpopular, ruling-party president? Already, Nelson, the Democratic Party and left-leaning outside groups are trying to irrevocably link the two.
“Democrats are inspired. They don’t like Trump by a large margin, and independent voters tend to not like Trump. But Rick Scott did a good job on the hurricane [Irma]. He’s moderated his positions the last three or four years. And he’s not toxic the way he was three or four years ago,” Vancore said. “Bill Nelson’s objective is to remind people of the old Rick Scott and to keep pointing fingers at Donald Trump. But if the plan is to win this thing on the tailwinds of Donald Trump, they’re going to lose.”
Scott has other challenges. Though he signed an anti-NRA gun bill into law after the Parkland shooting and was joined in Orlando on Monday by Parkland parent Andrew Pollack, Nelson has been among the biggest proponents of gun control in Congress since he was first elected in 2000 (though he voted to give gun manufacturers amnesty from civil lawsuits). Nelson has also been a fairly steady foe of oil drilling, a position Scott maneuvered to publicly adopt amid a push for drilling expansion by Trump’s administration.
And while Nelson’s centrist voting record has at times infuriated the Democratic party’s more liberal voters, Rick Scott’s Tea Party roots may give him some cover.
Still, Scott’s ability to fund his campaign with the stroke of a check also gives him an advantage that’s had Nelson admittedly running “scared as a jackrabbit” for the last year. Nelson has raised $10 million into his campaign account since beating Connie Mack IV in 2012 — an amount Scott matched in a single day during his 2014 reelection campaign when he and his wife, Ann, each stroked $5 million checks to the Republican Party of Florida.
At the time, Crist’s internal polls showed him ahead. He fell behind and never recovered.
Republicans have also shown that they’re eager to knock Nelson out of the Senate in a key swing state, a victory that would all but assure the party keeps control of the Senate. On Monday, continuing on a theme in which conservatives have labeled Nelson a feckless bureaucrat, the Republican National Committee dismissed the Florida senator as “America’s least effective and most vulnerable Democrat.”
“After nearly 30 years in Congress, and over 45 years as a career politician, he has nothing to show for his time in office other than a free ride to space,” said spokeswoman Taryn Fenske. “When Floridians go to vote in November, they’ll remember that Nelson collected millions in taxpayer dollars and has accomplished virtually nothing to benefit his constituents.”