Bill Nelson looked like the heavy favorite for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to unseat vulnerable Republican Gov. Bob Martinez in April 1990. But as Martinez continued to beef up his re-election campaign account and then-U.S. Rep. Nelson remained little known to much of Florida, Democrats fretted over Nelson's prospects.
Soon former Sen. Lawton Chiles confirmed the bombshell rumor: Yes, he would run for governor. Nelson gamely continued campaigning, but it was hopeless against the popular elder statesman. "Walkin' Lawton" went on to crush Nelson by more than 30 percentage points and then Martinez by 13 points.
More than two decades later, U.S. Sen. Nelson is the elder statesman of Florida's Democratic Party and the buzz is growing about him stepping into the governor's race to take on unpopular incumbent Gov. Rick Scott. With many Democratic leaders worried about the baggage of former Gov. Charlie Crist, Nelson has emerged as the potential savior of Florida Democrats.
Will Nelson run for governor?
He is a hyper-cautious 70-year-old who just won a third Senate term and by all accounts enjoys his current job. But he is considering the 2014 run and has no incentive to rush into a decision.
Come August or September, after hearing loads of encouragement and analyzing whether negative public perceptions of Scott remain calcified or are improving, Nelson may well decide the job Chiles snatched from him 23 years ago looks awfully enticing.
In the meantime, here are four reasons Nelson should run for governor and four reasons he shouldn't.
Run, Bill, run
1. It's about the legacy. Fair or not, Nelson has never reached the iconic status of such Florida Democrats as Chiles, Bob Graham, Reubin Askew or LeRoy Collins — all governors. The "Empty Suit" description Florida Trend magazine gave Nelson in 1990 has never quite disappeared.
What better way to secure his legacy than leaving Washington to wrest back the Governor's Mansion for his party?
"It would cement his legacy forever as one of the great Florida leaders. His legacy on the courts, boards and legislation could reshape Florida for a generation," said veteran Democratic strategist Karl Koch of Tampa. "By picking a youthful lieutenant governor he could also re-energize the Democratic bench and develop a sorely needed bench of Florida Democrats who can run statewide and win."
2. He has little to lose. Nelson's U.S. Senate term does not end for six years, so even if he lost the governor's race in 2014 he would remain Florida's senior senator. This is thanks to a change in Florida's "Resign to Run" law that the GOP-controlled Legislature enacted in 2007, allowing federal candidates to hold one office while campaigning for another.
By contrast, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio faces a far riskier decision than Nelson would. Rubio has emerged as a top presidential contender in 2016, but that's the same year he is up for re-election. Under Florida law, a candidate cannot appear on the same ballot for more than one office, so Rubio ultimately has to decide whether a presidential bid is worth giving up his Senate seat.
There is at least some risk for Democrats, however. Several campaign veterans have noted recently that if Nelson won the 2014 governor's race, he would then appoint his successor — potentially Crist — but that's not necessarily so.
In fact, Scott's term as governor would not officially end until Jan. 6, 2015, so if the Senate vacancy occurred before then, the Republican governor could appoint the replacement.
3. Nelson can win. A fifth-generation Floridian who proudly calls himself a Florida cracker, Nelson is that rare Democrat who can win votes in conservative North Florida as well as urban Broward County.
Despite repeated campaigns casting Nelson as an out-of-touch liberal, he has consistently managed to appeal to moderate swing voters and Republicans as a common sense, nonideological advocate for Floridians. That's how he managed in November to win nearly 300,000 more Florida votes than Barack Obama did.
When the Tampa Bay Times surveyed 119 political operatives, fundraisers and activists from both parties last week, nearly two-thirds said Nelson would be a stronger candidate against Gov. Scott than Crist.
"A lot of mainstream Democrats would probably be more comforted by a Democrat who's got deep roots in the party, than someone who only recently became a Democrat,'' noted Ron Sachs, a public relations consultant in Tallahassee and former Chiles aide. "The fact that Sen. Nelson's not saying no now when he was saying no six months ago is something I think that would hearten Democrats and give the governor some concern, but I would never underestimate the power of an incumbent, including Rick Scott."
Scott's approval ratings may be in the cellar, but he's planning to spend $100 million to ensure a second term.
4. It's a better job. Chiles quit the Senate in 1989 out of frustration over the lack of compromise and ability to get things done in Washington. That era was a model of efficient collaboration compared to the dysfunction of the U.S. Senate where Nelson now serves.
Even facing a Republican-controlled Legislature, Nelson surely would find serving as Florida's chief executive far more satisfying than serving as one of 100 senators in today's toxic partisan atmosphere.
"Lawton served 18 years in the U.S. Senate, but he said every day as governor was more enjoyable to him," Sachs recalled.
Stay put, Bill
1. Seniority matters in Washington. Turnover in the U.S. Senate has been so great in recent years that after two terms, Nelson ranks 30th in seniority. Given the spate of retirement announcements, he could be one of the few old lions remaining in the upper chamber by 2015.
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller's plans to retire after 2014 mean Nelson is poised to become chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Having earned all that seniority and power, why not stay around to use it?
2. He could lose. Conventional wisdom has it that Nelson would be a stronger candidate than Republican-turned-Democrat Crist to take on Scott, but conventional wisdom also held that Crist was a shoo-in for U.S. Senate in 2010. The truth is Nelson hasn't seen a tough campaign in at least 12 years, is not nearly as strong on the trail as Crist and excites few voters.
A March Public Policy Polling poll found only 43 percent of Florida voters approved of Nelson's performance and 40 percent disapproved. That's not exactly a political titan, and in 2014 he won't have President Obama on the ballot driving up turnout with the Democratic base.
"He's got a ton, ton, ton of crappy votes (on controversial legislation), and we would light him on fire," Republican consultant Rick Wilson of Tallahassee said of Nelson's 40-year political career. "He's the luckiest candidate on Earth when he gets to run against Katherine Harris or Connie Mack, but he won't get a pass on that from Rick Scott."
3. Grace Nelson. By all accounts, Nelson's elegant wife of 40 years much prefers Washington to Tallahassee. Given the years Grace, 65, has spent at her husband's side listening to chicken dinner speeches at Democratic receptions and the thousands of times she has had to beam as her husband described the view of Earth from the space shuttle, is it really fair to uproot her again for Tallahassee?
4. Age. There are no signs of health trouble for Nelson, unlike Chiles, who had undergone quadruple-bypass heart surgery five years before running for governor at age 60. Nelson's face is conspicuously wrinkle-free at age 70, he exercises religiously and he carries nary an ounce of extra weight on him.
Still, taking office at 72, Nelson would be the oldest governor in Florida's history. The job has been mainly for those in their 40s and 50s. Nelson barely campaigned in person across the state when challenged by Katherine Harris in 2006 and Connie Mack III in 2012; his campaign was mainly about raising money and airing TV ads.
Taking on a multimillionaire incumbent governor, however, would likely require the kind of grueling schedule and regimen Nelson has not seen training for since the space shuttle Columbia in 1986.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]