Bill Nelson is an incumbent without the advantages of incumbency.
Florida's only statewide elected Democrat is in a career-defining U.S. Senate race against Gov. Rick Scott, a multimillionaire with unlimited campaign cash and nearly universal name recognition in the state, for better or worse. And so far, Scott is attempting to define Nelson through $8 million in television ads across the state, including Spanish-language ads in Miami.
The early TV blitz raises the question: When is Nelson going to respond?
"The question is not how much money you have or how much money you spend but what is effective," Nelson said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office, where he was waiting to vote on Gina Haspel's nomination as CIA director in Washington while Scott was criss-crossing Florida switching between his official office and campaign mode. . "And so, to be determined. But I'm choosing not to use my hard-earned dollars now."
Nelson declined to say when he will spend his money and what type of message he plans to communicate to voters. But timing a television pitch too late could be Nelson's undoing.
Rep. Charlie Crist, who lost a statewide race to Rick Scott in 2014 by 1 percentage point, said months of television ads by Scott without a response from his campaign was one of the big reasons why he came up short.
"Back in '14 we were unanswering on television for like three months just because of the resource issue," Crist said. "You can handle it for a while but sooner or later you've got to start to respond."
Television advertising is essential and expensive in a state with 20 million people and six of the country's top 100 television markets, including the country's third-largest Spanish-speaking television market in South Florida.
Scott went up on television almost immediately after officially announcing his Senate bid on April 9, meaning Nelson has been playing the television waiting game for over 6 weeks, trying to amass campaign cash through fundraisers while also fulfilling his role as a lawmaker in Washington Monday through Thursday.
Crist said he expects Nelson to be up on TV imminently, though Nelson won't divulge when he'll take the seven-figure plunge. Nelson noted that he had done 44 events during the first five weeks of his campaign, though many of them were fundraisers. He took issue with the suggestion that he isn't campaigning aggressively, but acknowledged the disparity on television.
"I would ask you to question your premise there about him being more aggressive," Nelson said, as he propped his feet on a desk. "If you want to define that in terms that he has TV up, that’s correct, but not in the way the campaign is being conducted."
Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who supports Scott's Senate bid, said Scott was building his image months before his official announcement, showing up all over the state in his trademark Navy hat for press events and meetings including places like Everglades City, which has a population 402, not exactly teeming with potential voters.
"I think what makes a difference is that Rick Scott is everywhere," Diaz-Balart said. "During the hurricanes I was in Everglades City meeting with the mayor and others and all the sudden I turn around and there’s Rick Scott. Not doing the PR thing but actually helping us and working. People don't like in an election season to see the candidate for the first time. It remains to be seen when Bill is going to emerge. I'm sure he will."
Democratic strategist Kevin Cate, who worked on Crist's 2014 campaign, said Scott's early television strategy mirrors his spending from four years ago. Scott spent $10.8 million on television ads through the end of May in 2014, and he's on pace to match or exceed that amount this time around.
"This amount of money this early makes it easier for people to tune out and get cynical, which is exactly what Rick Scott wants," Cate said. "Rick Scott hemorrhages money on TV this time of year, pulls back a little bit during the summer and then bombards the airwaves until the election, spending $2 million a day in the last two weeks."
Cate estimates that Scott outspent Crist by $33 million on TV to eke out a victory despite running in a year that was good for Republicans, and every single dollar was money well spent.
"He understood he was going to lose if he didn't put in $14 million of his own money," Cate said.
Nelson continues to maintain a positive approval rating, though it has dropped in recent months along with that of most of his Democratic colleagues running for reelection in states that President Donald Trump won in 2016. But Nelson's 17 percent net positive approval rating is behind Scott's 22 percent net positive rating, according to numbers released in April by Morning Consult.
Scott "clearly improved his ratings with the hurricane last year but he still has a very high negative," Nelson said.
Miami Gardens Rep. Frederica Wilson, who is working as a surrogate for the Nelson campaign in South Florida, said she's not worried about the disparity on television, because many voters in her liberal-leaning district are well aware of Scott but not for the right reasons. She's not worried that Nelson isn't running TV ads.
"I wouldn’t know how to advise Bill Nelson because I’m not his treasurer, but I can tell you this, he will win, he will win because the citizens of Florida know his track record and they know Governor Scott and they know his track record," Wilson said.
But while Nelson will try to boost turnout among African-American voters in districts like Wilson's come election time, Scott is putting money on Spanish-language ads aimed at Puerto Ricans in Central Florida and Hispanics in Miami-Dade and Broward. The South Florida Spanish ad titled "Cambiar" (change) features generic testimonials that make any lawmaker regardless of party sound good to an uninformed voter.
"Rick Scott has created more opportunities in Florida," is one line from the ad. "There are more jobs in Florida thanks to Rick Scott," is another.
Juan Cuba, chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, said Spanish-language TV ads will be key for Nelson's campaign.
"I do think that we need to get up on Spanish media sooner than we usually do," Cuba said. "This is not just Nelson but getting on Spanish media, I think it's increasingly important. It's kind of really early in a cycle for a general election to run statewide ads. The only reason Scott is doing that is because he's able to raise millions of dollars and his strategy is just to spend to hide his record."
Outside groups along with the national Democratic Party can inject millions into TV ads on behalf of Nelson, though Nelson's campaign will likely be the most expensive of the 10 Senate Democrats running for reelection in states that Donald Trump won in 2016. The Senate Majority PAC, a group aligned with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to elect Democrats to the U.S. Senate, released its first television ad on behalf of Nelson on Monday. The ad, which highlights Nelson's biography and Senate record, its part of a $2.2 million statewide buy.
Though a dollar in Florida doesn't make as much of a difference as a dollar in North Dakota or West Virginia, where advertising is cheaper, Cate cautioned that national Democratic groups must make the state and its wide donor base an area of top concern.
"If they write off Florida they better not ask me or any other large donor in the state of Florida for another dime because it's that important to hold the Senate," Cate said. "Nelson has never faced a candidate like this, but Rick Scott has never faced a cycle like this with a Blue Wave building. I think those kind of even out a little bit and blunt a little bit of the financial advantage Rick Scott has."
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