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Bill Nelson concedes U.S. Senate race to Rick Scott after recount

Scott ultimately beat Nelson by 10,033 votes — or about 0.12 percent of the nearly 8.2 million votes cast in the race.
Bill Nelson, left, and Rick Scott, right.
Bill Nelson, left, and Rick Scott, right.
Published Nov. 18, 2018|Updated Nov. 18, 2018

On Sunday, following a 12-day ordeal in which 8.3 million ballots were counted twice — some of them thrice — Florida's Division of Elections confirmed that Scott beat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson by 10,033 votes. Shortly after, Nelson called the term-limited governor to concede, ending any speculation that he might challenge the results.

With the extended campaign behind him, Scott, 65, will now head to Washington, where he will add to the Republican Party's majority in the U.S. Senate. The win is the third in three tries for the former healthcare executive, who unexpectedly rode a Tea Party wave into the governor's mansion in 2010 and used a tireless work ethic and his own personal wealth to hold onto power.

"My focus will not be on looking backward, but on doing exactly what I ran on: Making Washington Work," Scott, who spent $64 million of his own money on his campaign, said in a statement.

Scott, who topped 50 percent of the vote for the first time in his political career, called Sunday for the country to "come together." But his victory follows a tumultuous two-week period in which he claimed rampant voter fraud in South Florida without evidence and asserted that "unethical liberals" were trying to steal his election. As if to sting Nelson one last time on his way out the door, Scott preempted the outgoing Senator's concession speech Sunday by announcing that Nelson had called him and was bowing out.

"We may have been heavily outspent in this campaign, but we were never outworked," Nelson said in a statement that withheld any congratulations for Scott. "To all Floridians, whether you voted for me, or for my opponent, or you didn't vote at all, I ask that you to never give up this fight."

RELATED COVERAGE: Bill Nelson's ending: Sluggish campaign couldn't overcome Rick Scott's millions. 

Sunday's events nevertheless brought resolution to a vicious Senate campaign that broke spending records and was so close it required overtime to finalize the results. Scott's margin of victory — 0.12 percent — triggered a state law requiring not one but two recounts, including a manual effort that dredged up memories of the 2000 presidential race. It was only Sunday, when Florida's 67 elections departments turned in the results from their manual recounts, that the state affirmed Scott's ascension to the Senate.

The Republican and Democratic parties raised millions to help fund armies of attorneys to fight the recount war, with the biggest battles occurring in a federal courtroom in Tallahassee and before canvassing boards in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Both counties continue to have unresolved issues: Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes misplaced more than 2,000 ballots, and Susan Bucher, her Palm Beach counterpart, says that technical problems mean her department's recount efforts may not conclude until Christmas. But the hectic two-week affair ultimately confirmed what seemed true all the way back on election night: Scott is a senator-elect, Ron DeSantis is Scott's successor in the governor's mansion, and the country's most divided state is also its most insane place to hold an election.

'Messy business'

"Elections are a messy business," said Barry Richard, an attorney who represented losing gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and 18 years ago worked for George W. Bush on the infamous presidential recount. "But I don't think this state is any more screwed up than any other state in terms of whether things could have been smoother."

Despite his victory, Scott played a major role in the controversy around Florida's recount, stoking conspiracy theories when he held a press conference in front of the taxpayer-owned governor's mansion two days after the election to ask that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate "rampant voter fraud" in South Florida. Within hours, President Donald Trump was furthering the allegations on Twitter, and protesters were gathering outside Snipes' office in Broward County.

There was no evidence to back those allegations. But Snipes and Bucher didn't help themselves, putting on a display of blunders that included misfiled ballots and a machine meltdown in Palm Beach County that a vendor blamed on a paper clip. As Bucher blew state deadlines to turn in results from a machine recount, and then another for a manual recount, Snipes proved unable to explain how many ballots had been cast in Broward County, much less keep track of the ballots her staff was counting. Scott won transparency lawsuits against both.

Snipes' staff missed a deadline to turn in machine recount numbers when an administrator fumbled with the state's website. And then, she admitted that her new totals were missing thousands of ballots that had been "misfiled."

"One lesson I learned: it is a big operation, and there are some things that need to be tweaked," Snipes, who was first appointed to the supervisor's post in 2003, said Sunday. "You saw the pressure that was put on."

Snipes' attorneys advised her not to answer questions about speculation that governor-elect DeSantis will move to suspend her from office. In Palm Beach, an exasperated Bucher said she'd been backed into an untenable corner by state deadlines, outdated equipment and misfortune.

"What we're asked to do is recreate two to three weeks of work in a couple of days," said Bucher, who had spent several nights over the past week sleeping on a cot in a corner of the county's tabulation center, a windowless warehouse in Riviera Beach. "I've been trying to change the deadlines for about 10 years."

Recount mostly worked

Still, elections experts note that Florida's recount process — put into place after the debacle of the 2000 presidential election — held to schedule and largely worked. In the race for agriculture commissioner, which also required a recount, victor Nicole "Nikki" Fried gained 2,981 during the hand recount, confirming her victory over state Rep. Matt Caldwell and her position as the lone statewide elected Democrat in Florida. As of late Sunday afternoon, though, Caldwell had not conceded.

In the final recount, Nelson gained 4,386 votes, a net increase of 2,570 over Scott.

That wasn't nearly enough for the Senator to keep his seat. Heading into the recount, Nelson was behind more than 12,500 votes. He filed a slew of lawsuits in the hopes of introducing thousands of new votes into the election and invalidating the state's process of determining "voter intent" on mismarked ballots. A federal judge in Tallahassee shot down most of those attempts. On Friday, Nelson's hopes of gaining ground on Scott were dashed when a manual recount in Broward County showed that some 30,000 undervotes the campaign initially believed were due to a machine error were in fact blank ballots from voters who simply skipped the U.S. Senate race.

Nelson's campaign now believes a poor ballot design may have led voters to overlook the race, which was tucked below the instructions on the bottom left-hand corner of the ballot in Florida's most Democratic county.

"The irony with the accusations made by the Republican party is that Bill Nelson would have been reelected if it hadn't been for Broward County's screwed-up ballot," said Richard, the elections attorney. "He's the one who should be upset."

That may not be entirely true. It's hard to know why voters skipped the race, and if ballot design was a cause. But the incoming leaders of Florida's House and Senate say they want to reexamine the state's election laws, and experts who spoke to the Miami Herald agreed that reforms are likely needed to create a more uniform ballot and a better process for dealing with rejected absentee ballots.

"For the most part I think this thing has gone pretty well," said Democratic consultant Steve Schale, who was among the first to predict that the state was headed for another recount. "It's certainly not the s–t show we saw in 2000."

Barring an issue with the state's looming certification of the election results Tuesday, or a legal challenge in the 10-day window that follows, Florida's midterms will finally be at an end.

And any fixes needed for Florida's elections system won't be Scott's problem. Come January, when he's sworn in as a U.S. Senator, the outgoing governor will be focused on legislation and confirmation votes. Scott campaigned on bringing term limits to Congress, and on providing federal funding for Everglades and Lake Okeechobee projects.

Though the final two weeks will likely be remembered most, Scott's narrow win comes after a brutal campaign. He endured backlash over toxic blue-green algae in Lake Okeechobee's estuaries, a brutal and bicoastal red tide, and a historically catastrophic hurricane in the Panhandle. He shed a series of scathing stories about connections between government vendors and his personal investments, and avoided any blowback from the outrage over Trump's controversial family separation policy and poor showing in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Scott's own money helped him outspend Nelson. But an ability to always stay on his "jobs" message, outmaneuver his opponents and score just enough of the vote to win proved a successful formula again in what may be Scott's most important victory in his still-young political career.

"From day one Rick Scott never wavered. He was a great Governor and will be even a greater Senator in representing the People of Florida," Trump tweeted Sunday. "Congratulations to Rick on having waged such a courageous and successful campaign!"

McClatchy reporter Caitlin Ostroff and Miami Herald reporters Samantha Gross, Kyra Gurney and Alex Harris contributed to this report


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