Florida Politics

Rick Scott edges Bill Nelson to win U.S. Senate seat in tight, historic race

Rick Scott did it again.

Powered by a highly motivated Republican turnout and another $60 million from his vast personal fortune, Gov. Scott clinched a seat in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday and dislodged deeply entrenched Democrat Bill Nelson from office.

Despite a record turnout for a Florida midterm election and widespread predictions of a Democratic “blue wave,” Scott won his third straight statewide election.

Just before midnight, Scott declared victory on stage to chants of “Senator Scott.”

“We can make change,” Scott said. “We did it over the last eight years in Tallahassee, we can do it in Washington, D.C.”

Nelson conceded just after midnight. He did not speak publicly.

As of midnight, Scott led Nelson by about 56,000 votes, strikingly close to his 2014 victory by 64,165.

A supporter of tax cuts and President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court choices and a critic of Obamacare, Scott promises to be a reliable vote in support of Trump’s agenda.

His victory ratifies Trump’s political strength in Florida, the most important battleground state in presidential elections.

Scott’s win also gives Florida two Republican senators for the first time in more than a century, since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

Scott will join Sen. Marco Rubio when he’s sworn in as Florida’s junior senator on Jan. 3, 2019, in what is likely to remain a GOP majority in the upper chamber. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera is expected to serve as governor for five days.

“He did a great job here,” said Carole Holland, 82, of Sarasota, a retired English teacher and a New Jersey native who voted Republican. “Bringing in jobs. That’s what he did the best at.”

Scott ran an aggressive TV advertising campaign and repeatedly blasted Nelson as an ineffective and tired career politician who has been in Washington for too long.

The Republican promised to push for term limits for members of Congress, an idea that played well in TV ads and with the GOP base but which has virtually no support on Capitol Hill in his own party.

A series of polls in recent weeks showed Scott losing the Senate race to Nelson because of weak support from women, Hispanics and independents. Those polls proved wrong, much as the 2016 presidential ones did.

Scott largely suspended his campaign activity after Hurricane Michael devastated parts of the Panhandle on Oct. 10. But after distancing himself from Trump for most of the campaign, he appeared with the president at two recent rallies in the heavily Republican cities of Fort Myers and Pensacola.

Nelson’s loss likely ends a political career that first began in 1972. Prior to Tuesday, Nelson had lost only once in four decades — a Democratic primary for governor against Lawton Chiles.

As a moderate southern Democrat, Nelson was already among the last of a dying breed. His defeat blunts the party’s efforts to be a stronger counterbalance against Trump and Republicans in Washington.

Nelson had not conceded as of 11 p.m. and Scott had not declared victory. A handful of precincts in Democratic strongholds remained uncounted.

But at Nelson’s Orlando election night rally, the temperature kept rising but optimism fell as the night went on. Supporters fanned themselves, clutched wine glasses, huddled around flatscreens and whooped for a slate of victorious Orlando-area candidates shouting their thank yous and promises, even as Wolf Blitzer chattered away with numbers showing Nelson and Scott in a dead heat — and then Scott pulling ahead.

Kristy Weick, 37, a therapist at Nelson’s Orlando election night rally, said the night reminded her of the 2016 election. She never bought into the promise of a blue wave, she said, knowing there were many people like her parents who wanted more true moderates on the ballot.

“We just have no clue. We have no idea,” she said. “The country is so divided that we don’t really know what’s going to happen. I can be hopeful, but hesitant.”

Meanwhile, it was a nerve-wracking night at Scott’s election party at La Playa, a high-rise oceanfront resort in Naples.

About 250 well-dressed guests sipped cocktails and let out thunderous cheers as results showed Scott slightly pulling ahead of Nelson on two giant Fox News TV screens.

Kay Marvin, a Republican from West Palm Beach who befriended Scott several years ago, said she was certain he was going to win.

“He’s a man who has kept his word. He’s a man of honor and dignity,” Marvin said.

Of the 35 Senate seats up for grabs Tuesday across the country, few, if any, were more consequential than the fight in Florida.

Scott, who turns 66 on Dec. 1, is one of the most successful and unusual figures in the history of Florida politics.

He has never been popular with voters and the latest NBC/Marist College poll, released on Monday, continued that trend, showing 50 percent of likely voters viewed Scott unfavorably and 42 percent favorably.

But Scott’s disciplined style and crisp messaging keep working, election after election.

The Illinois native, who moved to Naples in 2003, is by far the richest man to serve as governor, an asset that paid big dividends Tuesday as it did in his close victories for governor in 2010 and 2014.

The former chief executive of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain emerged from obscurity as “Rick who?” in 2010, but quickly got everyone’s attention when he pumped more than $70 million of his money into his first campaign.

The Scott-Nelson Senate race was overshadowed by the state’s marquee race for governor between Republican Ron DeSantis and Democratic Andrew Gillum.

Scott is the first governor to catapult himself to the U.S. Senate in 32 years. Democrat Bob Graham last accomplished the feat in 1986.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Nelson outperformed the Democratic nominee for governor. Gillum, vying to be the state’s first black governor, seemed to energize the Democratic base more than the mild-mannered Nelson. But Nelson drew more votes.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.


Support local journalism with unlimited digital access

Get unlimited digital access to our website for only $0.99 for the first month.

Steve Bousquet reported from Naples, Claire McNeill reported from Orlando and Steve Contorno reported from St. Petersburg.

Related stories from Miami Herald