Elections

Bill Nelson’s ending: Sluggish campaign couldn’t overcome Rick Scott’s millions

Sen. Bill Nelson drives a point home in a campaign stop at the 65th Infantry Veterans Park on Nov. 4, 2018, in Kissimmee.
Sen. Bill Nelson drives a point home in a campaign stop at the 65th Infantry Veterans Park on Nov. 4, 2018, in Kissimmee. Getty Images

Time finally caught up with Bill Nelson.

Florida’s senior senator, often described as one of the luckiest politicians alive, won three terms as a Democrat in the U.S. Senate seemingly without breaking a sweat, and for good reason: He faced one weak opponent after another.

After 46 years in public office, he finally met his match in Gov. Rick Scott, whose vast personal fortune, trademark aggressiveness and single-minded discipline has proven to be just enough to produce an excruciatingly narrow victory — Scott’s third, close statewide win in eight years.

“When you’re running against Rick Scott, you’re always playing defense,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, “and our path to victory as Democrats is largely predicated on record turnout in a handful of counties. It’s hard to get to a win.”

When the final results of a manual recount are reported in Tallahassee today, Scott is expected to be the winner by less than 13,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast.

A flurry of increasingly desperate and unsuccessful post-election lawsuits couldn’t change the outcome.

It will mark the first time since the direct election of U.S. senators began more than a century ago that both Florida senators will be Republican — Scott and Marco Rubio. And it brings to a close one of the longest careers in the history of Florida politics and one of the last vestiges of the Democratic Party of a bygone era.

“The last of the moderates,” former state chief financial officer Alex Sink said of Nelson.

In a period of hyper-partisanship, Nelson bet that voters would gravitate toward the congressman who rose so far above the political fray, he made it to space; the Democrat who affectionately calls his Republican counterpart “Marco;” the candidate who branded himself “Florida’s independent senator.”

For the better part of the past five decades, that worked. This time, it didn’t.

“It’s unfortunate,” Sink said. “But it just feels like his brand of politics is going away.”

• • •

At the outset, Nelson seemed to have plenty going for him, including a string of five straight statewide victories, two as state insurance commissioner. He was running in President Donald Trump’s first midterm, usually a time of trouble for presidents.

Nor was the summer kind to Scott as a series of environmental and management crises rocked the state. Guacamole green algae covered Lake Okeechobee. Red tide scared away thousands of visitors and brought protesters to Scott’s campaign tour. Coastal towns cried out against a private beach access law Scott signed.

Yet, Nelson rarely pounced.

Take SunPass. The tolling system broke down in early June and for weeks Scott had few answers as motorists across the state couldn’t access their accounts and were charged late fees. Nelson waited until late July to call for an investigation and barely mentioned it after.

“He could’ve done more to capitalize on that,” said Ione Townsend, executive director of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party. “Bill just wasn’t the limelight seeker and was steady and did his job. It’s a new day in politics and we have to learn to play the game better.”

With a fuzzy public image in the minds of many in Florida’s ever-changing electorate, Nelson also committed the mistake of allowing Scott to define him on TV as an over-the-hill politician who stayed too long in Washington and didn’t accomplish very much.

Freely spending millions, Scott started pounding the airwaves in April, months before Nelson was able to sustain a post-Labor Day TV advertising campaign. Scott poured $64 million of his wealth into the race and with his political action committee outspent Nelson 3-to-1.

Freely spending millions, Scott started pounding the airwaves in April, months before Nelson was able to sustain a post-Labor Day TV advertising campaign. Scott poured $64 million of his wealth into the race and with his political action committee outspent Nelson 3-to-1.

“He was able to prevail in statewide elections because he works hard at it, he understands public service and he loves Florida,” said Nelson’s long-time aide Pete Mitchell. “But we were in an environment that’s very difficult, with so much tribal behavior.”

Manatee Chamber of Commerce hosts senator. He talks about the need for bipartisanship, Port Manatee, and why he is seeking reelection.

• • •

Nelson, 76, was first elected to office in a state House district in Melbourne, near Cape Canaveral, in 1972.

People drove Ford Mavericks and All in the Family was cutting-edge television.

A Nelson newspaper ad in his hometown Florida Today newspaper late in that campaign ran next to an ad for the New England Oyster House, which offered a flounder dinner for $2.50.

As the years rolled by. Nelson kept winning, but somehow never established an especially strong identity with voters or a legacy that made him seem indispensable.

He went to space as a congressman in 1986. On the eve of the 2018 election, his daughter, Nan, was still recounting that flight to Democratic organizers in St. Petersburg, who politely listened.

“Bill left no footprints whatsoever,” said Republican strategist J.M. (Mac) Stipanovich, who’s credited with slapping the tag “empty suit” on Nelson when he ran for governor in 1990. “He filled a seat. He didn’t hurt us and he didn’t help us.”

Still, Nelson was a reliable vote for Democrats. He quietly spearheaded Florida’s fight against offshore drilling. In 2010, he stuck with Democrats and voted for the Affordable Care Act, even as he faced an election back home. At an October rally in Tampa, former Vice President Joe Biden said that took “courage.”

“I’ve met more senators than anybody living,” Biden said. “I haven’t met anyone in all my years with more character, courage, integrity and decency than Bill Nelson.”

But Nelson lacked a compelling message. His formal manner, even wearing his familiar uniform of blue blazer and khakis, cut a dated profile, like a candidate from the 1980s. He still uses words like “balderdash.”

“For all the across-the-aisle work that he’s done, he just ended up without that one signature thing that people could look at and say ...,” Sink paused for several breaths, before shifting course. “He just went up there to do his job and be a statesman. And in today’s environment, that just doesn’t work.”

• • •

When Nelson first won a Senate seat in 2000, he captured 38 of the state’s 67 counties. They included old Florida Madison, deep-south Jackson and Gulf in the coastal Panhandle. He won in Imperial Polk County and in a reddening Pasco County.

Nelson lost all of those counties in 2018, and wasn’t particularly close in any of them. Instead, he won 13 counties mostly clustered around Florida’s urban hubs.

In rural Washington County, where Nelson’s ancestors first put down roots in the hamlet of Orange Hill in the 1800s, Scott trounced him by a 5-to-1 margin.

As the state grew more partisan, so too has Nelson’s party.

Young progressives who enthusiastically rallied around Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor, could not muster anywhere near that level of enthusiasm for Nelson, a lifelong centrist whose ability to work across the aisle with Republicans is viewed as a liability, not an asset, in these hyper-partisan times.

Though he moved with the party on issues like LGBT rights, he angered progressives earlier this year when he voted for Gina Haspel for CIA director.

“Watching some of his votes, it’s hard not to feel like he wasn’t representative of what we stand for,” said Jessica Vaughn of Tampa, president of the Progressive Caucus of Tampa Bay, who added that Democrats would have been wise to test Nelson in a primary.

In his final race, Nelson slightly outperformed Gillum, something few would have predicted. Most Democrats believe Nelson’s low-key campaign was rescued by the energy Gillum brought to the ticket.

Even at Nelson’s election night party, “Gillum” T-shirts were more easy to spot.

“We have to pay attention to who is voting now,” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat and one of the party’s youngest elected leaders in Tallahassee. “Young people are voting and if they don’t know you, they’re not voting for you. They will leave it blank. I know people that did that.”

• • •

Nelson’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

He has rarely been seen in public since the election, except for a couple of YouTube videos released by his campaign. His election night party dwindled to an empty hotel room without a word from the three-term senator. “This is obviously not the result Senator Nelson’s campaign has worked hard for,” Mitchell told the few people remaining, mostly reporters.

At first, he appeared to say the senator was conceding, but Nelson has not deferred any ground to Scott. Even as the numbers spell defeat.

On Tuesday, though, Nelson resurfaced in Washington, D.C. He spoke on the Senate floor, urging passage of the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act of 2018, one of the last speeches of a 46-year career in politics.

“Mr. President,” Nelson concluded, “I yield the floor.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tamapbay.com. Follow @stevebouquet. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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