You’ve probably heard: Bill Nelson flew to space.
Thirty-two years ago.
To this day, that’s how many people identify the Florida Democrat — now a three-term U.S. senator, he blasted off on space shuttle Columbia as a 43-year-old congressman — underscoring that for all the flamboyance of the mission, Nelson has been long grounded in the vanilla center of politics.
“He’s like the old reliable, somebody you can count on. But you can’t put your finger on an extraordinary thing he’s done,” said Jack Shifrel, a veteran Democratic activist in Broward County. “He’s just always there for the right reasons, the right issues.”
Just always there, anodyne even in name — Bill Nelson — one of Florida’s most successful politicians ever and the only current statewide elected Democrat. Yet Nelson suddenly finds that opaque identity under assault by Republican Gov. Rick Scott in what has become the toughest reelection challenge in the 75-year-old senator’s career.
“After 40 years in politics, what’s Bill Nelson actually done?” asks a woman in a TV ad, part of the $12 million Scott and his allies have spent against the Democrat, who risks being defined by the remarkably early onslaught.
Scott paints Nelson as out of step with Florida’s purple electorate, noting studies that show he’s become an increasingly party-line voter in Congress over the decades, though a running tally from fivethirtyeight.com shows he’s voted in line with President Donald Trump’s position 42 percent of the time.
On Thursday, Nelson voted for Gina Haspel, the president’s controversial pick to run the CIA, upsetting some liberals and denying Scott a talking point.
No one would mistake Scott for anything but a reliable Republican vote. But lacking a primary challenger, he has softened his stance on a few issues, notably gun control, and adopted populist ideas like term limits. His campaign says the contrast is not party fidelity but about authenticity, accusing Nelson of talking like a moderate but voting another way.
“I’m not Bernie Sanders and I’m not Elizabeth Warren,” Nelson says. “On the flip side, I’m not Ted Cruz and I’m not Rand Paul.”
Nelson can point to tangible achievements, including a lead role in a bipartisan moratorium that has kept oil rigs off the west coast of Florida. Still, even friends marvel at how polls over the years have shown wide numbers of voters don’t know enough about him to form an opinion.
The space flight was a big deal, but “that’s gone by the wayside and there are more important things going on in the U.S. and the world and he really hasn’t taken much of a leadership role in any of those,” said Jim Kane, who worked on Nelson’s 1990 gubernatorial campaign, the only election he lost due to the late entry of fellow Democrat “Walkin’ Lawton” Chiles.
“There are a lot of things Bill Nelson has done, but he’s gotten very little credit for it. He’s more of a background person, more interested in getting things done than notoriety for it,” Kane added. “That used to be a strength, but I don’t think it is anymore. The political environment is so upside down that you’ve got to yell and scream a lot more than anyone else to get attention.”
“I’m not a shouter,” Nelson said in an interview Tuesday from his Senate office, jacket off, a leg kicked up on a desk cabinet. “Maybe there’s something in my makeup that [says] humility is a virtue. That’s hard to reconcile in a public life but it creates a style so that I’m not pushing myself to the front of the line.”
That down-home persona, enhanced by his folksy baritone and campaign uniform of blue shirts and khakis, seems both authentic and a device, making him appear less partisan to voters.
“In order to stay elected as a moderate Democrat, you don’t go too far right or too far left. You don’t make a lot of headlines,” said Matthew Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor and pollster.
Nelson tossed across the desk an eight-page document titled “Fifty Pieces of Legislation Championed by Senator Bill Nelson Enacted into Law.” It ranged from the NASA authorization act of 2010, when he was chairman of the space subcommittee, to a bill that required child-proof packaging of liquid nicotine. Nelson pointed to work on getting BP oil spill money for Florida, Everglades restoration and the drilling moratorium.
He emphasized bipartisan efforts with fellow Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, including their recent legislation to address the Parkland school massacre. And Nelson, who would be chairman of the Commerce Committee if Democrats regain control of the Senate, stressed that part of the job is killing legislation, crediting himself for helping thwart a recent attempt to privatize air traffic controllers.
The Senate rewards seniority and the inside game, and Nelson has gained respect from colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He’s worked on space issues with Texas Sen. Cruz, for instance.
Even so, nothing particularly major stands out despite the long tenure. Nelson’s been unable to shake the perception that he is an “empty suit,” as a Florida Trend cover story suggested in 1990. Newspaper stories from years ago bear a striking resemblance to the present.
▪ “He seldom took on controversial issues and frequently joined forces with dozens of other members,” read a 1990 story recapping his tenure in the Florida Legislature, from 1972-1979.
▪ “Nelson has seen two of his bills become law in 12 years,” read a story about his time in the U.S. House, from 1979-1991.
▪ “As many as one in three [voters] don’t know enough about him to judge,” went a profile leading up to Nelson’s run for a second Senate term in 2006.
“Bill’s not in the classic sense a self-promoter,” said Martha Barnett, a civic leader and Democrat in Tallahassee. “That’s a strength to me in a time of chaos and instability, that we have someone who knows Florida. He’s been to probably every city, every corner of the state and has an appreciation that will be critical to us going forward.”
Nelson is a fifth-generation Floridian and grew up in Melbourne, where he was student class president and state president of 4-H, selling cattle to pay for college. An only child, he graduated from Yale and then went to University of Virginia Law School but gravitated to politics. He kept winning elections, most with ease.
Enter Rick Scott, who shot to prominence in 2010 as an outsider candidate for governor blessed with a personal fortune. Scott may be the one person who can make Nelson look charismatic but he is a fierce campaigner and always on message, using the bully pulpit to relentlessly travel the state, branding himself as the jobs governor.
A February poll from the University of North Florida showed only 5 percent of registered voters didn’t know enough about Scott to form an opinion. Nelson was at 26 percent.
“He’s better known, sure,” Nelson conceded, noting that hundreds of people move to Florida each day. “Florida is unique,” he said. “It’s not like Ohio. It’s certainly not like a smaller state, with such a dynamic and changing population. A lot of people still won’t be focused until the last couple months of the election.”
Newcomers most likely know who Rubio is, though, illustrating a national profile he’s gained by running for president and engaging on big issues of the day, whereas Nelson stays out of the fray.
“He’s done nothing over the decades to make people revere him nor anything to make them revile him,” said veteran Florida Republican Mac Stipanovich, who has branded Nelson a “connoisseur of low-hanging fruit” for his focus on issues such as invasive pythons and Chinese drywall.
“People have a tendency because he’s not a showboat to underestimate Bill,” Stipanovich said. “I can hardly remember a race where it was, ‘Oh my, Nelson’s going to get his clock cleaned, he’s so boring.’ Yet there he is.”
Nelson got rolling during Tuesday’s interview recalling his career, ticking off how he’s stood up for immigrants and voting rights. “Did I mention Everglades restoration?”
An aide showed up, presumably to break up the meeting with a reporter, and Nelson cut him off. “I’m not done,” he said, then kept going.
“It’s not jazzy, it’s not sexy,” he said of his work, “except you kind of get things done.”
When told that many still associate him with the space flight, Nelson instantly shifted topics.
Throughout the interview, a reminder of what continues to define Nelson to the average Florida voter loomed through a window.There, hanging in an adjacent room, is an enormous picture of Florida, as seen from space.