At Rick Scott’s victory party, a midnight celebration ends the waiting

It was near midnight when Fox News projected him as the winner over Democrat Bill Nelson.
Gov. Rick Scott accepts congratulations at his victory party in Naples [Steve Bousquet - Times]
Gov. Rick Scott accepts congratulations at his victory party in Naples [Steve Bousquet - Times]
Published Nov. 7, 2018|Updated Nov. 8, 2018

NAPLES — For four hours, they sipped cocktails, chatted and watched Fox News. But there was no sign of Gov. Rick Scott.

The hours rolled by and the pounding music went on, through Fun Fun Fun, We Are the Champions and Higher and Higher. Still no Scott, until shortly before midnight when he arrived on stage, beaming, with his wife, Ann, and their two daughters.

After watching returns on TV from the 14th floor of the La Playa resort in Naples, Scott decided not to wait for a concession speech from Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, whose career was over. Scott arrived in the hotel ballroom a few minutes after Fox News projected him as the winner.

"Now that this campaign is behind us, that's where we're going to leave it," Scott said. "These campaigns are divisive, and they're tough, and it's way too nasty."

Scott's most loyal supporters, including some high-profile figures from his administration, said they never lost faith in the boss' ability to deliver another narrow victory, his third in eight years, all three by a single percentage point or less.

"He's won three times in very close races so I would have been surprised if it wasn't. It really is a purple state," said lobbyist and long-time friend Bill Rubin. "I feel like this really is an affirmation of the job the governor's done for the last eight years."

With 99.9 percent of the vote in, unofficial results gave Scott a victory over Nelson by 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent or 55,394 votes — the closest of his three victories.

At one point Tuesday night, Scott's margin over Nelson was 64,061. He won re-election as governor over Democrat Charlie Crist four years ago by an eerily similar margin of 64,145. He won his first race for governor over Democrat Alex Sink in 2010 by 61,550 votes.

In a rare moment of self-reflection, Scott choked up as he recalled two people who weren't there to witness it — his late mother, Esther, and an engaging and popular young aide, Jeri Bustamante, who died in a Miami boating accident in April, the day before Scott announced his Senate candidacy.

For some supporters, it was a nerve-wracking night at the end of a grueling and mean campaign in which a series of polls said — inaccurately, it turned out — that Nelson would win by five, six or seven points.

"There's a lot of people who are going to pore over all those inaccurate polls," Scott said as the crowd erupted in cheers.

He thanked President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, former President George W. Bush and former Gov. Jeb Bush, among others. The crowd booed lustily when Scott said how shocking it was that people suggested "we embrace socialism," in a reference to the Democratic candidate for governor, Andrew Gillum.

Among those at the oceanfront resort were Scott's chief economic development advisor, Pete Antonacci; his former environmental secretary, Herschel Vinyard; Tim Cerio, a former chief legal counsel; and communications director John Tupps.

Scott singled out for praise his campaign manager, Jackie Schutz Zeckman, a St. Petersburg native who was handed the reins of his Senate campaign in April and played an instrumental role in Tuesday's victory.

A former Scott chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, was also in the crowd of more than 200 people.

"He always wins close races. He's good at it," Hollingsworth said. "You think about a guy who started selling TV Guide door-to-door when he was 7 years old."

In his victory speech, Scott echoed his own campaign ads, in which he said he would not be popular on Capitol Hill.

"I'm not going to D.C. to win a popularity contest. I'm going to D.C. to get something done," he said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the Associated Press declared Scott the winner.