Slug­gish cam­paign ends a lengthy ca­reer

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY STEVE BOUSQUET AND STEVE CONTORNO

Af­ter 46 years in pub­lic of­fice, Sen. Bill Nel­son has fi­nally met his match in Gov. Rick Scott, whose wealth, ag­gres­sive­ness and dis­ci­pline proved to be just enough to oust him from the Se­nate.

Time fi­nally caught up with Bill Nel­son.

Florida’s se­nior sen­a­tor, often de­scribed as one of the luck­i­est politi­cians alive, won three terms as a Demo­crat in the U.S. Se­nate seem­ingly with­out break­ing a sweat, and for good rea­son: He faced one weak op­po­nent af­ter an­other.

Af­ter 46 years in pub­lic of­fice, he fi­nally met his match in Gov. Rick Scott, whose vast per­sonal for­tune, trade­mark ag­gres­sive­ness and sin­gle-minded dis­ci­pline

has proven to be just enough to pro­duce an ex­cru­ci­at­ingly nar­row vic­tory — Scott’s third close statewide win in eight years.

“When you’re run­ning against Rick Scott, you’re al­ways play­ing de­fense,” said Demo­cratic strate­gist Steve Schale, “and our path to vic­tory as Democrats is largely pred­i­cated on record turnout in a hand­ful of coun­ties. It’s hard to get to a win.”

When the fi­nal re­sults of a man­ual re­count are re­ported in Tal­la­has­see to­day, Scott is ex­pected to be the win­ner by less than 13,000 votes out of more than 8 mil­lion cast.

A flurry of in­creas­ingly des­per­ate and un­suc­cess­ful post-elec­tion law­suits couldn’t change the out­come.

It will mark the first time since the direct elec­tion of U.S. sen­a­tors be­gan more than a cen­tury ago that both Florida sen­a­tors will be Repub­li­can — Scott and Marco Ru­bio. And it brings to a close one of the long­est ca­reers in the his­tory of Florida pol­i­tics and one of the last ves­tiges of the Demo­cratic Party of a by­gone era.

“The last of the mod­er­ates,” for­mer state chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer Alex Sink said of Nel­son.

In a pe­riod of hy­per­par­ti­san­ship, Nel­son bet that vot­ers would grav­i­tate to­ward the con­gress­man who rose so far above the po­lit­i­cal fray, he made it to space; the Demo­crat who af­fec­tion­ately calls his Repub­li­can coun­ter­part “Marco;” the can­di­date who branded him­self “Florida’s in­de­pen­dent sen­a­tor.”

For the bet­ter part of the past five decades, that worked. This time, it didn’t.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate,” Sink said. “But it just feels like his brand of pol­i­tics is go­ing away.”


At the out­set, Nel­son seemed to have plenty go­ing for him, in­clud­ing a string of five straight statewide vic­to­ries, two as state in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner. He was run­ning in Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s first midterm, usu­ally a time of trou­ble for pres­i­dents.

Nor was the sum­mer kind to Scott as a se­ries of en­vi­ron­men­tal and man- age­ment crises rocked the state. Gua­camole green al­gae cov­ered Lake Okee­chobee. Red tide scared away thou­sands of vis­i­tors and brought pro­test­ers to Scott’s cam­paign tour. Coastal towns cried out against a pri­vate beach ac­cess law Scott signed.

Yet, Nel­son rarely pounced.

Take SunPass. The tolling sys­tem broke down in early June and for weeks Scott had few an­swers as mo­torists across the state couldn’t ac­cess their ac­counts and were charged late fees. Nel­son waited un­til late July to call for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and barely men­tioned it af­ter.

“He could’ve done more to cap­i­tal­ize on that,” said Ione Townsend, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Hills­bor­ough County Demo­cratic Party. “Bill just wasn’t the lime­light seeker and was steady and did his job. It’s a new day in pol­i­tics and we have to learn to play the game bet­ter.”

With a fuzzy pub­lic im­age in the minds of many in Florida’s ever-chang­ing elec­torate, Nel­son also com­mit­ted the mis­take of al­low­ing Scott to de­fine him on TV as an over-the­hill politi­cian who stayed too long in Washington and didn’t ac­com­plish very much.

Freely spend­ing mil­lions, Scott started pound­ing the air­waves in April, months be­fore Nel­son was able to sus­tain a post-La­bor Day TV ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign. Scott poured $64 mil­lion of his wealth into the race and with his po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee out­spent Nel­son 3-to-1.

“He was able to pre­vail in statewide elec­tions be­cause he works hard at it, he un­der­stands pub­lic ser­vice and he loves Florida,” said Nel­son’s long­time aide Pete Mitchell. “But we were in an en­vi­ron­ment that’s very dif­fi­cult, with so much tribal be­hav­ior.”


Nel­son, 76, was first elected to of­fice in a state House district in Mel­bourne, near Cape Canaveral, in 1972.

Peo­ple drove Ford Mav­er­icks, and “All in the Fam­ily” was cut­ting-edge tele­vi­sion.

A Nel­son news­pa­per ad in his home­town Florida To­day news­pa­per late in that cam­paign ran next to an ad for the New Eng­land Oys­ter House, which of­fered a floun­der din­ner for $2.50.

As the years rolled by, Nel­son kept win­ning but some­how never es­tab­lished an es­pe­cially strong iden­tity with vot­ers or a legacy that made him seem in­dis­pens­able.

He went to space as a con­gress­man in 1986. On the eve of the 2018 elec­tion, his daugh­ter, Nan, was still re­count­ing that flight to Demo­cratic or­ga­niz­ers in St. Petersburg, who po­litely lis­tened.

“Bill left no foot­prints what­so­ever,” said Repub- li­can strate­gist J.M. (Mac) Sti­panovich, who’s cred­ited with slap­ping the tag “empty suit” on Nel­son when he ran for gov­er­nor in 1990. “He filled a seat. He didn’t hurt us and he didn’t help us.”

Still, Nel­son was a re­li­able vote for Democrats. He qui­etly spear­headed Florida’s fight against off­shore drilling. In 2010, he stuck with Democrats and voted for the Af­ford­able Care Act, even as he faced an elec­tion back home. At an Oc­to­ber rally in Tampa, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den said that took “courage.”

“I’ve met more sen­a­tors than any­body liv­ing,” Bi­den said. “I haven’t met any­one in all my years with more char­ac­ter, courage, in­tegrity and de­cency than Bill Nel­son.”

But Nel­son lacked a com­pelling mes­sage. His for­mal man­ner, even wear­ing his fa­mil­iar uni­form of blue blazer and khakis, cut a dated pro­file, like a can­di­date from the 1980s. He still uses words like “balder­dash.”

“For all the across-theaisle work that he’s done, he just ended up with­out that one sig­na­ture thing that peo­ple could look at and say ...,” Sink paused for sev­eral breaths, be­fore shift­ing course. “He just went up there to do his job and be a statesman. And in to­day’s en­vi­ron­ment, that

just doesn’t work.”


When Nel­son first won a Se­nate seat in 2000, he cap­tured 38 of the state’s 67 coun­ties. They in­cluded old Florida linch­pins like Madi­son, deep-south Jack­son and Gulf in the coastal Pan­han­dle. He won in Im­pe­rial Polk County and in a red­den­ing Pasco County.

Nel­son lost all of those coun­ties in 2018 and wasn’t par­tic­u­larly close in any of them. In­stead, he won 13 coun­ties mostly clus­tered around Florida’s ur­ban hubs.

In ru­ral Washington County, where Nel­son’s an­ces­tors first put down roots in the ham­let of Orange Hill in the 1800s, Scott trounced him by a 5-to-1 mar­gin.

As the state grew more par­ti­san, so, too, has Nel­son’s party.

Young pro­gres­sives who en­thu­si­as­ti­cally ral­lied around An­drew Gil­lum, the Demo­cratic can­di­date for gov­er­nor, could not muster any­where near that level of en­thu­si­asm for Nel­son, a life­long cen­trist whose abil­ity to work across the aisle with Repub­li­cans is viewed as a li­a­bil­ity, not an as­set, in th­ese hy­per-par­ti­san times.

Though he moved with the party on is­sues like LGBT rights, he an­gered pro­gres­sives ear­lier this year when he voted for Gina Haspel for CIA di­rec­tor.

“Watch­ing some of his votes, it’s hard not to feel like he wasn’t rep­re­sen­ta­tive of what we stand for,” said Jes­sica Vaughn of Tampa, pres­i­dent of the Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus of Tampa Bay, who added that Democrats would have been wise to test Nel­son in a pri­mary.

In his fi­nal race, Nel­son slightly out­per­formed Gil­lum, some­thing few would have pre­dicted. Most Democrats be­lieve Nel­son’s low-key cam­paign was res­cued by the en­ergy Gil­lum brought to the ticket.

Even at Nel­son’s elec­tion night party, “Gil­lum” Tshirts were eas­ier to spot.

“We have to pay at­ten­tion to who is vot­ing now,” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Demo­crat and one of the party’s youngest elected lead­ers in Tal­la­has­see. “Young peo­ple are vot­ing and if they don’t know you, they’re not vot­ing for you. They will leave it blank. I know peo­ple that did that.”

Nel­son’s cam­paign did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment.


Ione Townsend, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Hills­bor­ough County Demo­cratic Party


He has rarely been seen in pub­lic since the elec­tion, ex­cept for a cou­ple of YouTube videos re­leased by his cam­paign. His elec­tion night party dwin­dled to an empty ho­tel room with­out a word from the three-term sen­a­tor. “This is ob­vi­ously not the re­sult Sen­a­tor Nel­son’s cam­paign has worked hard for,” Mitchell told the few peo­ple re­main­ing, mostly re­porters.

At first, he ap­peared to say the sen­a­tor was con­ced­ing, but Nel­son has not de­ferred any ground to Scott. Even as the num­bers spell de­feat.

On Tues­day, though, Nel­son resur­faced in Washington, D.C. He spoke on the Se­nate floor, urg­ing pas­sage of the Coast Guard Reau­tho­riza­tion Act of 2018, one of the last speeches of a 46-year ca­reer in pol­i­tics.

“Mr. Pres­i­dent,” Nel­son con­cluded, “I yield the floor.”

Con­tact Steve Bousquet at [email protected]­ Fol­low @steve­bou­quet. Con­tact Steve Contorno at scon­[email protected]­ Fol­low @scon­torno.


Sen. Bill Nel­son drives a point home in a cam­paign stop at the 65th In­fantry Veter­ans Park on Nov. 4 in Kissim­mee.


Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles Schumer and Sen. Bill Nel­son walk back to Schumer's of­fice af­ter up­dat­ing re­porters on the elec­tion re­count.

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