In one of the most anticipated announcements of the cycle, Republican Gov. Rick Scott confirmed today that he will challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in November. Scott's decision puts the contest into the Toss Up column.
Very few candidates could wait until 211 days before an election to announce a statewide campaign. Scott is one of them. With 10 media markets and 27 congressional districts, any candidate with statewide aspirations needs two things to be competitive: name identification and money. Scott has both and thus could afford to wait as long as he has. The late announcement also allowed him to work through the last regular legislative session of his administration.
Nelson is the only statewide elected Democrat left in Florida. As politicians go, he is fairly low key. He isn't likely to race his colleagues to a bank of television cameras and focuses most of his legislative attention on issues important to Florida. He is known as a kind and affable Member who gets along well with his Senate colleagues to the point that his colleague, GOP U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, has said that he will not campaign against Nelson. This low-key style is part of the challenge he faces in November. The other part is that Democrats haven't had much luck in statewide races in the last few cycles. In fact, Nelson was the last Democrat elected statewide when he was re-elected in 2012. It doesn't help that Nelson hasn't had a competitive race since 2000. He won this open seat in 2000 with 51 percent; he was re-elected in 2006 with 60 percent and in 2012 with 55 percent.
For his part, Scott has never had an easy race. He won the 2010 Republican primary with 46 percent, while then-U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum got 44 percent and Mike McCallister took 10 percent. He won the general election with 49 percent to 48 percent for Democrat Alex Sink. Scott was re-elected in 2014 with 48 percent to 47 percent for Democrat Charlie Crist. In both cases, the political environment favored Republicans. This will be Scott's first race in which the wind will be in his face rather than at his back.
Scott does have a number of strengths, not the least of which is his personal money and his willingness to spend it. He spent roughly $75 million on his first race and an estimated $22 million on his re-election bid. There is little doubt that he will spend heavily on the Senate race. Scott's other asset is his discipline. He stays relentlessly on message. Democrats contend that Scott has his weak spots, not the least of which is that he will say anything. Specifically, they point to his position on guns, an issue that will be especially relevant in the wake of the Parkland shooting. Strategists also argue Scott has a long history of looking out for himself over the interests of the state's voters. Democrats are making this point in their early attacks on Scott, launching a website -- www.selfservingscott.com and digital ads.
Florida Democratic strategists contend that in mid-term elections, U.S. Senate races drive turnout, which is a bit counterintuitive since the gubernatorial contest is also on the ballot. They further argue that there hasn't been a competitive mid-term U.S. Senate contest since 1974. There have been four polls released thus far this year, and Nelson was ahead in all, but not by much. His advantage ranged from one to six points.
This will be one of the closest and hard-fought contests in the country this cycle. The race is now in the Toss Up column.
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