Rick Scott’s early, aggressive pace challenges Bill Nelson

Nelson may be a third-term U.S. Senator, but he's never had an opponent like Scott, who is setting a fast pace in a campaign that won't be decided until November.
Published May 8, 2018|Updated May 8, 2018

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is a fitness fanatic who does crunches and push-ups at age 75. He says he approaches every campaign "scared as a jackrabbit" and consistently wins. But he may have met his match in Gov. Rick Scott, who puts in 16-hour days and crisscrosses the state in a personal jet.

A month into their Senate battle — one with implications about the control of power in Washington — Republican Scott has set a torrid pace, forcing the low-key Democrat Nelson into a position he's never faced: playing catch-up.

• Scott alone has spent $5 million on TV commercials, one in Spanish, a remarkably early and aggressive move, with about $3 million more coming from allies. Nelson has no air cover and could begin to feel pressure to respond, draining precious campaign cash. In the past month, Google searches in Florida for "Rick Scott" have outpaced those for "Bill Nelson," with both peaking April 9, the day Scott announced his bid.


• Free to set his own schedule, Scott usually makes a couple campaign stops across the state each day, pitching poll-tested policies such as term limits. Nelson's done only a few, though (like his rival) he's traveled in his official capacity. Scott's aided by a growing staff of about 40 people across the state. Nelson has a handful.

• And Scott has shown fundraising prowess, pulling in $3.2 million in the first three weeks of the campaign — equal to the amount Nelson raised in the first three months of 2018. The governor spent Tuesday raising money in Texas and can rely on a personal funds he used to overpower opponents in two successful, if exceedingly close, gubernatorial elections. In 2010, Scott spent $73 million of his fortune to upend Florida's political scene.

"Of course I'm not taking it lightly," Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times. "This is what we expected. He has unlimited wealth. I have to be smarter, faster, quicker."

Asked if he's being that, Nelson replied, "Well, stay tuned, there's six months to go."

It is early and Scott faces the challenge of running in a midterm election cycle that historically favors the party that does not hold the White House. President Donald Trump, who narrowly won Florida, has energized Democrats and put Florida's growing independent vote in good position for Nelson.

Read more: Once eager to tout Trump friendship, Rick Scott now plays it down

Yet Nelson has had the luxury of weaker opponents before and the race is expected to be close to the end. If Scott can manage a win, the aggressive start may be a signal moment.

The GOP has a one-seat majority in the Senate, so taking out Nelson is crucial to the party strategy to retaining power.

"I bust my butt to get my message out every day," Scott, 65, told the Times.
"It's the only way he possibly has a chance to win, to pull out the big guns as early as he can," said Jack Shifrel, a longtime Democratic activist in Broward County. He's confident in Nelson, who is seeking his fourth term and is Florida's only statewide elected Democrat, but wants to see more action from the campaign. "I get asked all time, when is Bill Nelson coming?"

Dave Jacobsen, chairman of the Democratic Club of North Florida, feels similarly. "We've got to get engaged. It's going to be difficult to compete against Scott and all the money."

Nelson and Scott are largely focused on the Interstate 4 corridor, where swing voters reside, and especially the fast-growing Puerto Rican population. Nelson spoke with displaced families last week in Tampa, appearing in his role as senator, and the next day flew to the island to survey Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.

He has long traveled the state when the Senate is in recess but the political advantages are clear in recent appearances — and allows him to preserve campaign resources. Scott, too, uses the advantage of office. Next week he's going to Israel of the opening of the U.S. embassy, a gesture of solidarity with Florida's influential and heavily Democratic Jewish community.

Nelson's strategy is to lash Scott as tightly as possible to Trump and his unpopular policies.

In his latest mass mailing to Florida voters, Nelson wrote: "If Rick Scott wins, he will rubber stamp the worst parts of Donald Trump's extreme agenda: from opening Florida's coast to offshore drilling, to dismantling our health care system, to gutting programs so many Americans depend on, like Medicare and Medicaid."

In each of his campaigns, Nelson has highlighted his deep family roots in Northwest Florida. Three generations of Nelsons are buried in Chipley in Washington County. But that was a very long time ago, and today's Florida is a far different place.

"If the election were held today, Rick Scott would beat the stuffing out of Bill Nelson in Northwest Florida," said Don Gaetz, a Destin resident and former Senate president.

Tying Scott to Trump won't work, he predicted. "Rick Scott is an independent force, separate and apart from Donald Trump," Gaetz said. Scott is again running as an outsider and his long-shot term limit proposal works to emphasize that Nelson has been in some kind of political office since 1972.

Susan Glickman, an environmental activist and lobbyist from Pinellas County and a Democrat, said Scott is in trouble, especially in coastal counties, because of his past support for offshore oil drilling. (Scott says he now opposes it.)

"Bill Nelson has been a lifelong champion of the environment and Rick Scott has sided with polluters at every opportunity," Glickman said. "You're going to see lots of money being spent on both sides, talking about the real records of both of these candidates."