Sen. Bill Nelson hoped this was the week he finally appeased Democrats fretting about the state of his re-election campaign, but he was overshadowed by national attention on Florida’s blockbuster race for governor between two young ideological warriors.
After months of being hammered on TV by his Republican rival, the veteran Democrat finally began his own ad campaign, banking on a belief that voters are only now starting to pay attention. Despite Gov. Rick Scott’s onslaught, the race remains a tossup in the polls.
“It hasn’t moved the numbers,” Nelson said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “It must say something about some reservoir of goodwill for me, for which I am grateful.”
Nelson’s September strategy, which calls for pointed critiques of Scott’s record and business dealings, is a gamble. Florida’s size and 10 major media markets require an expensive budget of television advertising, and Nelson has reserved $18 million through Election Day, with outside Democratic groups putting up more than that.
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Until now, he’s failed to calm widespread Democratic concerns about his sluggish and uninspiring performance, according to numerous activists and analysts. That they echo critiques from months ago only emphasizes the concern.
“I don’t see the eye of the tiger anymore. He’s just kind of going through the motions and has made some errors — this thing about the Russians hacking into our systems,” said Jim Kane, a strategist who worked on Nelson’s 1990 race for governor, his only loss since entering politics in 1972.
“He needs to get his mojo back.”
Scott and his GOP allies have spent about $50 million so far, and the wealthy governor has boundless resources and stamina.
“The risk is that he’s given Rick Scott several months to define him,” said Democratic consultant Matthew Isbell, noting that public opinion polls show the two-term governor with a nominal lead and that’s not a position of confidence for Nelson to begin the sprint to November.
“Rick Scott is a bulldozer, and I don’t think Nelson was completely prepared for that,” Isbell said. “He’s stumbled a bit and he’s got to catch up,” he added. “It’s not lost, though.”
Less than 10 weeks until Election Day, the contest has national implications with party control of the Senate at stake. And for the eighth year in a row, Nelson remains Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat.
President Donald Trump narrowly won Florida two years ago and has maintained avid support among Republicans, almost single-handedly minting Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis. At the same time, Trump continues to drive a passionate backlash from the Democratic base which has veered to the left, as illustrated by gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum, the 39-year-old African-American mayor of Tallahassee.
Gillum has the potential to lift Nelson, but the 75-year-old Democrat could not be more different — cautious in his politics with a gently Southern old-school persona. A prime example is how Nelson said he would oppose Trump’s Supreme Court pick if abortion rights were a litmus test, only to backtrack once Brett Kavanaugh was named. Kavanaugh has told at least one Republican senator that Roe vs. Wade is settled law but liberals demand he be opposed on all ground.
“Bill Nelson needs to get out there and show he’s a fighter,” said Justin Diaz, a Tampa leader of the anti-Trump Indivisible group who believes in Gillum’s ability to drive turnout among voters of color and youth.
“He needs to get a backbone,” agreed Kara Wilson, a 41-year-old Democrat from St. Petersburg who voted in Tuesday’s primary. “Rick Scott’s campaign, his ads are very misleading. Bill Nelson needs to come out stronger, have a better presence.”
Nelson has long tried to appeal to the middle but in an increasingly polarized time, with Democrats nominating an unabashed liberal for governor, he looks out of step.
“He’s been a moderate in trying to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans, and I think a lot of Democrats have lost faith in him,” said Jessica Vaughn, a Tampa teacher and foot soldier in Gillum’s progressive grassroots army for more than a year. She criticized Nelson for siding with Senate Republicans on key votes, such as confirming Gina Haspel as director of the Central Intelligence Agency despite questions about her stands on the use of torture.
Nelson’s not nearly visible enough to grassroots activists, Vaughn said, a feeling echoed by others across Florida. “The only access I have to Bill Nelson is when I see him at big party events or fancy dinners. I don’t think he’s making himself accessible to more of the average voters, so all you have to go on is his record.”
Scott, 65, has portrayed Nelson as a career politician with few major accomplishments and a reliable Democratic vote despite his rhetoric about reaching across the aisle. Scott has outworked Nelson on the ground, most prominently among Hispanic voters, which has alarmed Democrats.
A mid-August poll of Hispanic voters showed Nelson with a slim lead over Scott. “Nelson should be worried since two key Puerto Rican constituencies — Puerto Rican men and non-college graduate Puerto Ricans — are now in the Scott column,” read a memo from the Latino Victory Fund.
Puerto Rican voters are angry about Trump’s lackluster response to Hurricane Maria, but Scott has inoculated himself against blowback by offering state resources, making frequent visits to the island and courting the growing population in Central Florida.
State Sen. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat and the son of Puerto Rican-born parents, is bullish on Nelson’s re-election chances but said “he needs to keep pushing and keep himself visible” and “remind people that Rick Scott is tied at the hip to Donald Trump.”
Torres said Puerto Rican voters who answer their door for canvassers often ask, “Que partido?” or what political party? If the answer is Republican — Trump — the conversation is over. If the answer is Democrat, “Well, now we can talk.”
As the retired New York transit cop travels across his Orlando-area district, a key Senate battleground, Torres sees one of Nelson’s major obstacles: Too few voters are engaged. “People say to me, ‘I’ve never heard of him.’ I say, ‘Do you know who your mayor is? Your school board member?’ They say, ‘No.’ But he does what he can and he’s very engaged and I think they’ll come out for him, if I have anything to do with it.”
Nelson has been dogged by complaints about his visibility and attributes it to the lack of TV advertising. “That changes tomorrow,” he said in an interview Tuesday. The first ad, in English and Spanish, traces his service in the Army, his voyage to space and Senate career.
“I believe a public office is a public trust. You’re there to serve the people, not the special interests. Just wake up every day and do what’s right,” Nelson says in the ad, which is effectively the same message he’s been pitching for decades.
His campaign is planning to play up questions about the intersection between Scott’s personal investments and his public policies and exploit outrage over toxic algae in parts of the state. Though Nelson doesn’t explicitly say it, he’s also counting on Trump to continue to turn off swing voters.
For all the worry, some agree Nelson’s conservative approach was a good play.
“We just had one of the most exciting and competitive gubernatorial elections in years. It doesn’t seem like the Senate race has entered the frontal lobe of Florida voters yet,” said Democratic strategist Screven Watson. “There are a lot of people who have counted Bill Nelson down or out or said he’s too old school and the guy just seems to win.”
Still, he added, “This is his biggest race and Rick Scott will absolutely pound him.”
Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam C. Smith and staff writer Daniel Figueroa IV contributed to this report.