Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson are heading into the final days of the most-expensive Senate race in Florida history, with the campaign characterized by a relentless barrage of negative advertising.
Through mid-October, Scott, the outgoing Republican governor, had raised about $69 million for his Senate campaign, according to the Federal Elections Commission. Nelson, a Democrat seeking his fourth term in the Senate, had raised $28 million.
Both campaigns have been bolstered and attacked by outside political groups. Groups have spent $17.7 million to support Nelson, with $35 million to attack Scott, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign spending.
Outside groups have also spent more than $31 million attacking Nelson, according to the center.
The outcome of the race will likely end the political career of the loser. For Nelson, 76, it would conclude more than four decades in public office, including stints as a state Cabinet member, congressman and state legislator in addition to his time in the U.S. Senate.
For Scott, 65, a former health-care executive who vaulted from political obscurity into the governor’s office in 2011, a defeat would block his move to the national stage after serving eight years as the chief executive of the nation’s third-largest state.
“It’s Bill Nelson’s toughest race and probably, more importantly, it’s Rick Scott’s toughest race,” said J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a long-time Republican strategist.
Scott is a veteran of two expensive, hard-fought campaigns for governor, prevailing over his Democratic opponents with roughly 1 percentage-point vote margins in 2010 and 2014.
In his Senate campaign, Scott’s message is that he will take his fiscally conservative agenda, which includes tax cuts and debt reduction, to Washington, D.C. He has emphasized his role in growing the Florida economy over the last eight years, including the creation of more than 1.6 million private-sector jobs.
“The choice is clear. You want somebody that’s going to go to D.C. and do what we’ve done here and make sure we cut taxes, like President Trump has done, cut regulations, like President Trump has done and work on paying down the debt,” Scott said at a Lee County rally Wednesday with President Donald Trump.
He criticized Nelson for opposing the federal tax-cut package passed last year.
“Sen. Bill Nelson cares about one job, his,” Scott said, alluding to his campaign theme that Nelson has little to show for his time in public office.
Nelson had longed prepared for Scott’s challenge, telling reporters more than a year ago that he is “running scared like a jack rabbit.”
After beating former Congressman Bill McCollum in his first Senate campaign by a margin of 51 percent to 46 percent in 2000, Nelson cruised to re-election victories in 2006 and 2012 by double-digit margins.
But he has faced electoral adversity before. He lost the 1990 Democratic primary for governor to Lawton Chiles, before reviving his political career with a successful state Cabinet campaign in 1994.
Nelson has slammed Scott’s longtime opposition to the federal Affordable Care Act and the refusal to use a provision in the law to expand Medicaid coverage to more than 800,000 low-income Floridians.
“He has tried to kill the law, and that is a huge difference between us,” Nelson said.
Nelson has also criticized Scott for the outbreak of toxic algae blooms in the state, along with red-tide problems in coastal areas of Southwest Florida and Southeast Florida.
“He has systematically, in his eight years as governor, systematically disassembled the environmental agencies of this state,” Nelson said. “His record is very clear on the environment.”
But Scott has countered, noting that Nelson, as a gubernatorial candidate in 1990, promised to reduce pollution in Lake Okeechobee.
“And now, how many years later, he has never done anything to get us the money to fix the dike at Lake Okeechobee, which is a 100 percent federal project,” Scott said.
Scott has credited Trump with helping the state secure funding for dike repairs and for a new law that authorizes construction of a reservoir near the lake. The reservoir is expected to reduce discharges of polluted water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
One advantage Scott has in the race is his personal wealth. He reported a $232 million net worth in 2017 on his most recent state disclosure form. But a federal disclosure form filed in July indicated Scott’s wealth, when including assets held by his wife, could exceed $500 million.
Scott has contributed about $63.5 million to his own campaign, including $12.45 million since Oct. 22, according to the Federal Elections Commission. It is similar to his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, when he spent more than $70 million of his own money to win the race.
Yet despite the spending by both candidates and their political allies and the blizzard of mostly negative television ads, the Senate race is taking a backseat to a gubernatorial contest between Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum.
“It has been surprisingly overshadowed by the governor’s race,” said Stipanovich, who helped Gov. Jeb Bush win election in 1998. “The race hasn’t been nearly as interesting and nearly as covered by the press as the governor’s race.”
Stipanovich said Nelson and Scott have not be able to get as much “free media coverage,” which would amplify their paid advertising, as DeSantis, a frequent guest on Fox News, and Gillum, who has often appeared on CNN and MSNBC.
“I don’t think either Nelson or Scott have benefited from that kind of free media to the extent the gubernatorial candidates have,” Stipanovich said.