Using his personal fortune and millions more from outsiders, Republican Gov. Rick Scott wins U.S. Senate seat in Florida

By: - November 18, 2018 2:35 pm
Bill Nelson Rick Scott

Bill Nelson/Rick Scott

Recount logoIn what’s being called the most expensive race for U.S. Senate in history, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has defeated three-term incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson for the U.S. Senate seat in Florida.

Of more than 8 million votes in November, Scott garnered 10,033 more votes than Nelson, according to Sunday vote counts, ending Nelson’s longtime public career in Congress.

With Scott’s victory, he’ll now serve with Miami Republican Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate. That’s the first time in more than a century that two Republicans from Florida will be side by side in the Congress’ upper chamber. The last time that occurred was in 1875, when Republicans Abijah Gilbert and Simon B. Conover represented Florida in the U.S. Senate.

On the campaign trail, Scott used his own personal fortune and got millions more from individual contributors and political action committees, making the race the most expensive U.S. Senate contest ever in Florida and across the country.

Similar to his past political races, Scott, a former health care executive, spent tens of millions in the U.S. Senate contest, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Some reports say the personal investment was more than $60-million.

And in the end, Scott spent vastly more than Nelson — $68 million, while Nelson spent nearly $28 million, based on numbers from their principal campaign committees, according to federal campaign finance data.

In addition, outside groups spent more than $80 million on the race, for a total of $181 million spent overall in the contest. That makes it the most expensive U.S. Senate election ever in terms of combined and outside spending between two candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

And that’s not counting lawyer fees over the past 11 days, as a litany of federal and state lawsuits sprang up during a tumultuous election season that involved both machine and manual recounts.

Nelson’s only recourse now is to file a formal contest to the election results in circuit court. That deadline is Nov. 30.

Nelson was an impressive campaigner for decades, winning both state and federal races over close to half century in government and politics.

But not this time.

For being one of the most observed national U.S. Senate races in the country, the Scott-Nelson race was somewhat strange.

The two candidates engaged in only one debate, and that was on Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo. The Scott campaign wanted to debate more and blamed Nelson for not wanting to engage.

Then Hurricane Michael hit Florida in mid-October, giving Scott days of free media time as he left the campaign trail to give constant updates on the damage the Hurricane 4 storm had done to the Panhandle and other parts of the Big Bend region. Ironically, Michael came just as positive campaign ads were airing, depicting Scott, 65, in heroic form for his performance in the wake of Hurricane Irma from a year before.

Meanwhile, Scott’s campaign was airing a barrage of ads portraying Nelson as everything from confused – a presumed reference to his age of 76 – and unaccomplished.

How and why Nelson lost after an 18-year career in the U.S. Senate may not be fully known.

“Every politico and consultant in the state will line up to point fingers and pontificate about woulda, shoulda, coulda,” says Democratic National Committee member Alan Clendenin. “The reality is, no one or thing or issue lost the Senate seat. Was it a lackluster record of accomplishments? Dependence on television? Lack of a true grassroots mobilization? Trump’s appeal? Or did his luck just run out? Truth, maybe a little all of the above and more.”

“Nelson’s primary problem was that he was an old face in a new time that demanded new blood in politics,” surmises former USF-St. Petersburg political science professor Darryl Paulson. He says the other factor that hurt Nelson was a lack of a significant piece of legislation attached to his name.

“Ask the first 1,000 Floridians to name a piece of legislation that Nelson was instrumental in drafting that had a profound impact on the nation and on Florida.  I am guessing that 999 Floridians can’t name anything,” Paulson added.

Amos Miers, a Democrat from Pinellas County, said Nelson would have benefited from a primary challenge, referring specifically to Kissimmee resident Tamika Lyles, who originally filed in the Democratic primary before bowing out. “It would have prepared him further for the general (election) by addressing issues from a younger candidate who is a progressive African-American woman,” he says.

The race got nasty as the vote tallies got closer after election night Nov. 6, and Scott alleged “fraud” on the part of Nelson and other Democrats, with no proof to back up the allegations. Ultimately, Secretary of State Ken Detzner did refer one matter for investigators: allegations that state Democrats sent incorrect instructions to mail-in voters for four counties. But overall, the machine and manual recounts over the days still ended up with Scott winning.

While the race was exceedingly nasty, the two men did touch base Sunday afternoon after the final numbers were posted.

“I just spoke with Senator Bill Nelson, who graciously conceded, and I thanked him for his years of public service,” Scott said in a statement.

For the 76-year-old Nelson, it’s an apparent end to a political career that began in the Florida House of Representatives in 1992.

Until today, Nelson had lost only one other contest in his decades-long career. That was in the Democratic gubernatorial primary back in 1990, where he lost out to Lawton Chiles. Chiles hired him in 1995 to serve as the state’s insurance commissioner, a position he stayed in until running and winning a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2000, where he served three terms.

Shortly after 3 p.m., Nelson issued a statement. Here’s an excerpt:

“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,” he said. “You must fight to protect the fundamental right to health care and against any attempt to rollback our progress on things like pre-existing conditions You must fight to preserve the natural wonders of this state, from the Everglades to the Pine Forests to the beaches and offshore waters.  Say ‘no’ to drilling – not one rig off our coastline. As a country, we need to continue to launch rockets and explore the heavens. I have seen the blue brilliance of the earth from the edge of the heavens.  And I will fight on to save this planet, our homes and our cities, from the spreading plague of the greenhouse gases that infect our atmosphere, and play havoc with our weather, and risks the planet our children and grandchildren will inherit. Every single one of us needs to keep fighting to strengthen Social Security and Medicare, for the generations that are there and to come.  It’s your Medicare, it’s your Social Security; you pay into those programs. They belong to you, and not to the politicians who are plotting to rob your retirement. I will continue to fight on and on for the inalienable human rights that are the soul and glory of the American experiment: civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the sacred right to vote. We must end all forms of voter suppression, make it easier for Americans to vote, and honor the ideal that we are governed by the majority and not by the minority rule.”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.