WASHINGTON — It's a safe bet that Sen. Bill Nelson will vote against President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee. Or is it?
Earlier this month, the Florida Democrat made an uncharacteristically strong declaration about opposing anyone who would threaten the landmark abortion ruling Roe v. Wade, as many believe Kavanaugh's installment would do, while shifting the court firmly to the right for years to come.
But last week after Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, Nelson issued a careful statement saying he'd review the judge's record and wanted to sit down with him. He maintained this week that he remains open-minded, even as his campaign fired off a fundraising solicitation to stop "another right-wing extremist on the Supreme Court."
The mixed signals reflect the touchy politics as Nelson, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country, seeks a fourth term in a state that Trump narrowly won. Already Nelson is being pressured from both sides, including ads and a torrent of phone calls to his office. It's part of a budding, expensive war to sway key senators.
Gov. Rick Scott, Nelson's challenger, told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday that after reviewing Kavanaugh's record he feels he has the "experience and objectivity" to hold the lifetime seat on the nine-member court.
"The Senate should move quickly to vote in favor of his confirmation and not allow partisan politics to obstruct this important process," Scott said in a statement. "After originally pledging to vote against the nominee without knowing who it was, it's time for Bill Nelson to stop dodging questions and let Floridians know whether he will take a break from being a rubber stamp for Democratic leadership."
Nelson points out that his original statement carried the caveat that it depended on whom Trump nominated, though he's shown frustration with questions on where he stands, dismissing Capitol reporters.
"Give me a break, let me have a chance to talk to the guy and see what he says," Nelson told the Times on Tuesday while on his way to do an interview with CNN on a more preferred topic: Trump's relationship with Vladimir Putin.
The Democratic base is fired up against Kavanaugh, so Nelson risks alienating voters he needs to turn out in November. But opposing Kavanaugh could turn off some independents drawn to Nelson's long cultivated centrist image and feed attacks like Scott's.
Nelson and Scott are effectively tied in what is the country's most expensive Senate campaign and fighting for every advantage. "He's kind of between a rock and a hard place," Florida pollster Brad Coker said of Nelson.
While other Senate Democrats up for re-election are being more closely targeted, Nelson remains in the mix. It will take 50 votes to confirm Kavanaugh but Republicans have a 51-49 majority and two moderate Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, are undecided.
An array of conservative groups are running online ads calling on Nelson to support Kavanaugh. "The court and innocent lives are on the line," says a narrator in an ad from the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List. It has 130 canvassers in Florida who will be taking that message to voters. And it commissioned polling that showed 56 percent of Florida voters say Nelson should vote to confirm Trump's nominee.
Another ad released this week by Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by the Koch brothers, says Kavanaugh will "respect" the Constitution and rule of law and asks viewers to call Nelson and support Trump's nominee. And a third group's ad plays off the liberal base's opposition to all things Trump and questions if Nelson will "cave to the extreme left."
On the other side are groups such as Organizing For Action, a spinoff of President Barack Obama's political machine, which has mounted a telephone campaign targeting Nelson and other Democrats up for re-election in Trump states.
Nelson's spokesman told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday that the office has gotten 2,000 calls since Kavanaugh was announced and all but about 275 were opposed to confirming him.
"We trust Bill Nelson will do the right thing," said Susan Smith, a progressive leader in Tampa Bay, who is urging other undecided Democrats, including Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, to stick together and oppose Kavanaugh, putting more pressure on Collins and Murkowski.
But Manchin, Heitkamp and Donnell voted for Trump's last Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Nelson opposed him. (In 2006, Nelson joined most Democrats in voting against Kavanaugh to serve as a federal appeals court judge in Washington.)
A vote for Kavanaugh "would really hurt him badly with Democrats and not just progressive Democrats," Smith said. "We've all had it with this president and the destruction he's causing across the board."