By: Caleb Mills
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and, after forty years in politics, you’d think that Senator Bill Nelson would be a case in point when it comes to that adage. But sometimes, for both people and their canine companions, mastering new tricks is actually a viable option. Still, for Florida’s lone Democrat to survive past November, it’s going take a little more than just jumping through hoops to succeed.
Ten of the seats Democrats will be defending this fall are in states that Donald Trump won in 2016, and despite good poll numbers for Democrats nationally, electoral realism and the congressional map tell a different story. Republicans hold the clear advantage in the Senate, and the House won’t be a piece of cake either. While the strategy of attaching vulnerable Republicans to the unpopular President might be effective in some cases, if the fight is on his turf, then it’s a completely different ballgame.
Nelson will be running for re-election in a swing state that the President not only carried unexpectedly, but did so while flipping liberal Orlando to red and closing in on democratic strongholds around Tallahassee. And if that doesn’t keep the former Astronaut up at night, the prospect of a potential opponent in Governor Rick Scott most assuredly does. Scott is a two-term governor with a decent approval rating, strong GOP organization in his state, and, perhaps most intimidating, a war-chest with over 12 million dollars ready for the campaign. Bill Nelson is running for his life, and he knows it.
“The way I approach an election, I assume nothing,” Nelson said back in April of 2017, “I run scared as a jackrabbit.” And it certainly seems as if he’s employing that strategy when it comes not only to his constituents, but also to his party.
Late last year the Senator reportedly met with Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, his aides, and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee staff to talk about his electoral viability. The meeting is said to have focused on boosting turnout and, of course, the issue that inevitably comes to the fore when campaigning in the Sunshine State: money.
Florida is an incredibly expensive state to campaign in, and Scott’s personal fortune is nothing to sniff at. “We’ll all need to raise at least $60 million for Bill,” said one Democrat close to the Senator in a quote from Politico, and, even so, he warned that Nelson would still “get outspent by Scott by 2-to-1.” The governor has already raised $1.1 million and he hasn’t even officially declared his candidacy.
What else makes Rick Scott such a threat that he could send Nelson home? He’s finally a decent alternative.
Bill Nelson has been the safe bet for most of his career, and his most viable challenges while in the Senate have come from two very mundane Republicans. Connie Mack, who was a fundamentally a weak opponent, and Katherine Harris, fended off by Nelson in 2006, who was the controversial former Secretary of State in charge of the state’s vote recount in the 2000 presidential election.
Who is Bill Nelson strategically then? He’s the guy who’s good enough. Not the lesser of two evils, more like the greater of two average options. He wins his races by presenting himself as the moderate with a good head on his shoulders, and that’s really who he is. He doesn’t send you running to the polls, but he doesn’t keep you up at night wondering if he’ll defund Social Security either.
His greatest strength has always been drawn from old fashioned party building. He knows how to shake a hand with a smile, and he doesn’t exhaust his constituents’ patience with progressive idealism. Perhaps for those seeking higher office, such pacifism is detrimental, but when it comes to the preserving his seat in the Senate, it’s crucial. The gladiatorial arena of national politics, which is essentially a game of who gets the better sound bite on CNN, isn’t something the old Floridian particularly cares for. Somebody’s got to be the adult in the room, and Nelson is glad to act the part.
“His style is more tailored to small groups, speaking with voters one-on-one,” said Democratic pollster David Beattie in 2012 while talking to the Miami Herald. And in swing states, where elections can be won or lost in the pragmatic center, Nelson has an obvious advantage.
But the thing about Florida’s powerful liberal is that his brand of politics is arguably on the brink of extinction. A moderate Southern Democrat with political longevity based on deep connections to in-group people, rather than admiration regardless of party membership. The 75-year-old has never really faced a serious political challenge, and Rick Scott might change that.
Florida’s strong two-term GOP governor hasn’t always been popular. In fact, for most of his time in office he’s had an approval rating below 50%. But what he lacks in good numbers, he makes up for with smarts and his public-profile. People know who he is and what he stands for. “The Florida economy is good,” lobbyist and longtime friend of the governor, William Rubin said in Politico, “and people are feeling good about the direction of our state under his leadership.”
As it turns out, Scott has a little history when it comes to taking on moderate Democrats, exemplified by his re-election campaign for governor in 2014. The race had seemed to be either tied or to show former democratic governor Charlie Crist with a lead throughout its course, but in the final week something changed. “Scott’s (TV ad) advantage has a taken a real toll,” reportedly observed Crist’s data crunchers. “Our margin has declined by about a point a day since Monday.”
John Morgan, an attorney working for the Crist campaign told the following to the Miami Herald, “Charlie had been up the last week by three. On Thursday he was down by one. And Rick had poured $12 million of his own money in. We knew then, I knew then, it was over.”
Over 100 million dollars had by then been spent on TV ads alone during the race, and most observers agree that Scott won the election in the last week during his ad blitz. “It’s not just about persuading voters who to vote for, it’s also people wanting to vote,” Crist’s campaign manager, Omar Khan said. “When you dump that much money, like they did in Miami, that can affect turnout. The question is how does all that negative advertising affect someone who might or might not vote.” Scott won a lackluster victory by a few thousand votes, but it was all he needed.
That’s the nightmare scenario for the Nelson campaign and it’s a reality that can’t be counteracted by what little money the DNC can throw back at the GOP. It’s something Nelson will have to fight from the ground up with high turnout of direct voters.
In 2012, Nelson garnered 17 more counties than President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, and he won by a margin of over 10% against Republican Connie Mack. If that wasn’t enough to annoy Reince Priebus, the exit polls surely drove home how bad the situation was for the GOP. Nelson swept across poll lines to win every age group, every education demographic, 51% of the male vote, and 59% of the female vote. But perhaps most telling, he also received votes from 61% of those who identified as moderates. This stands in stark contrast to Scott’s 2014 face-off against Crist, when the former failed to carry the overall female vote, barely squeaked by with 49% of the male electorate, and, interestingly enough, didn’t win the Cuban vote, which is pivotal to Republicans in statewide races. In the 2012 race, Nelson carried 59% of the Latino vote.
The single most necessary factor for a Democrat to win in Florida, and most states, is high turnout. Bill Nelson can’t afford to coast through this election cycle on the grounds that he’s just good enough. He will need his liberal base this time, and he’ll need the party fired up. And last February’s tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School appears to be providing at least one of those things.
The 17 students who directly survived Nikolas Cruz’s brutal attack have gone on the warpath in recent weeks, targeting Republican politicians and the NRA. And as far as public opinion goes, it seems to have worked. Polling has shown that as many as 7 out of 10 Americans favor stricter gun measures following the Parkland attack, with Republicans having a hard time defending their choice of policies on the issue. So, for Democrats, finally, the policy debate seems to have finally decisively swung to their side of the aisle, which is good news for Nelson.
The Senator has been fighting for stricter gun control measures for over 20 years. When he ran for governor in 1990, he promised to ban the sale of assault rifles, and, while in congress, he co-sponsored the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. It didn’t take long for Nelson to call out Republican lawmakers for failing to do enough on the issue, and it’s not something he’s going to let up on.
The CNN townhall meeting that occurred shortly after the attack, which provided an opportunity for survivors and other concerned citizens to question state leaders, had Nelson and his Republican colleague Senator Marco Rubio face tough questions on the matter, with Rubio coming away particularly bruised. But the one thing that Nelson pointed out that really stuck with those in the audience concerned a notable absence: that of Governor Scott. “My colleague, Sen. Rubio, and I have a good relationship, we get a lot of stuff done. And I want you to know that I told him before we came out here tonight that he had guts coming here,” Nelson said. “In fact, there is no representative of the state of Florida. Our governor did not come here, Gov. Scott,” he continued, “But Marco did.”
Bill Nelson laid the groundwork on an issue he can use to real effect against Scott during the campaign, and, as of now, he’s on the right side of the issue politically. Polls from Florida Atlantic University and Quinnipiac have shown that support for gun control measures is surging in the Sunshine state. Even Rubio, who’s seat isn’t in play this November, seems to have felt the pressure as of late, introducing a bill with Nelson in the Senate to incentivize common sense gun measures at the state level.
As the townhall meeting indicated, Bill Nelson is going to be unusually aggressive and defiant in this election, and it’s a necessary win for Democrats. A loss in Florida would ensure that the Senate stays Republican for the next two years and enshrine a slew of vulnerable, unpopular Republican policies without adequate opposition. One thing is for sure, Bill Nelson won’t go home without a fight; and he’s got plenty left to give.
Caleb Mills is an active freelance writer from the American Midwest.
Image: U.S. Senator Bill Nelson smiles while getting fitted in flight gear prior to flying in a T-38 Talon at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., April 3, 2018. The Florida senator, in office since 2001, flew in a familiarization flight to better understand Tyndall’s mission and its contributions to the local area, state and nation as a whole. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Isaiah J. Soliz/Released)