Despite predictions of a “blue wave” in this November’s midterm elections, Democrats face a brutal Senate map, and have to fight to hold onto control of 10 seats in states that voted for President Trump. One of the closest and likely one of the most expensive races is going down in Florida, where Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who has represented the state since 2001, is facing the toughest challenge of his career from Gov. Rick Scott (R), a close Trump ally.
“This is really a clash of the titans,” Republican political strategist Rick Wilson told TPM. “They both have run multiple statewide races and they’re good at it.”
The latest Mason-Dixon poll of likely voters showed a tight race, with Scott slightly in the lead and with 9 percent of voters undecided. Over the past few months, despite Republicans’ poor performance on a generic ballot nationwide, Mason-Dixon found that Scott has climbed in the polls while Nelson has “remained static” — numbers reflected in other public polling.
National Democrats acknowledge the state is going to be a huge money drain for them, but say they’re confident Scott can be defeated.
“Look at Rick Scott’s past electoral performance,” David Bergstein, the national press secretary of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), told TPM. “In Republicans’ two best cycles in modern political history, in 2010 and 2014, Scott dramatically outspent his opponents and never won by more than a point. He barely eked out victories in favorable years, and this is not a favorable year for him.”
Scott has been pouring what Wilson dubs “an assload of money” into his campaign, buying gobs of airtime in the expensive state. The Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC has swooped in to help Nelson with a massive TV buy set to begin after Labor Day, a $23 million investment on top of the $2.2 million the PAC already spent earlier this year. That’s nearly a third of its total ad budget for the campaign cycle just for Nelson, a sign of the supreme importance the group is putting on holding this seat.
Working around the Trump factor
Both Democratic and Republican consultants in the notoriously swingy state say that Scott’s vast personal wealth, name recognition, positive approval rating, and aggressive outreach to Hispanic voters make him a force to be reckoned with.
“Rick Scott has basically unlimited money, so he can spend his way out of problems that other people can’t,” Wilson said. “And I’ve watched him work, and he’s one of the hardest working candidates out there. He’s like a Terminator focusing the issue of jobs and the economy. People underestimate him at their peril.”
Scott has made a special effort to woo Florida’s massive and diverse Hispanic voting bloc, holding events in GOP-leaning Cuban and Democratic-leaning Puerto Rican communities, taking multiple trips to hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico, and buying a Spanish-language TV spot during the World Cup.
Tomás Kennedy, the political director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, has been working for months to engage and register Hispanic voters, and says Nelson can’t count on their votes unless he matches Scott’s hustle.
“I hope he doesn’t take our community for-granted,” Kennedy said. “Those people need to be talked to and mobilized, and if they feel ignored you will see them less energized.”
But Scott’s close ties to President Trump could sink him in a year defined by anger against the president.
“The anti-Trump sentiment is a big, big motivator for voters,” Kennedy told TPM. “We just held focus group last week with about 30 Puerto Ricans, including several self-proclaimed Republicans, and they all stated that the link between Scott and Trump was too great to ignore and said they couldn’t vote for him.”
Though Scott has avoided campaigning with the president so far this year, and did not appear with him at a rally in Tampa last week, he was one of the first major GOP officials to endorse Trump’s bid for the White House and one of the Trump campaign’s major fundraisers, and has been a vocal defender of the administration’s policies.
“There are hours and hours of footage of Scott praising the president. He can’t distance himself now,” Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale told TPM. “If the national environment makes 2018 a referendum on Trump, that balances out Scott’s money advantage.”
Wilson, who’s long been a fierce Trump critic, agreed that Scott’s support for President Trump could prove to be a major liability.
“Nelson has the advantage of the strong possibility that Trump will tweet some stupid shit at any moment and Scott will have to talk about it,” he quipped.
A GOP operative working with the Scott campaign, speaking to TPM on background, argued that Scott’s relation with Trump is more of an asset than a liability.
“He has a great relationship with him and Floridians are aware of it,” she said. “They know Florida will get things because of that relationship, and because Trump spends a lot of time in Florida. But they know, at the same time, that the Governor is supportive [of Trump] when he needs to be and opposing when he needs to be.”
Health care wars rile up the left
Though down slightly in the public polls overall, Nelson has a significant lead with black and Hispanic voters and residents younger than 35. While those groups are traditionally much less likely to vote than the state’s older, whiter and more conservative population — especially in a midterm year — several special elections in Florida over the past few months have shown a fired-up progressive base.
Last September, Democrats flipped a key state Senate seat. This February, they flipped another seat in a Sarasota district Trump won. And in May, Democrats held onto control of a swing district in southern Florida.
Health care has emerged as the number one issue for Democratic voters this year. Florida has the third-highest rate in the country of people who lack health insurance, and Scott’s reputation as an Obamacare antagonist who refused to expand Medicaid won’t do him any favors.
Trump’s efforts to chip away at the Affordable Care Act and since congressional Republicans’ failed attempts to repeal the ACA has made the law has become more popular than ever — and for the first time since its passage, Democrats see it as a winning issue to run on. The administration’s health policy actions, meanwhile, have driven up costs and made more people uninsured.
Most recently, the administration has pushed for the creation of a shadow Obamacare market with cheap, skimpy plans that do not cover pre-existing conditions. With recent polling showing that protecting pre-existing conditions is a top priority for voters, his actions could become a drag on Scott’s campaign.
“Republicans hate Obamacare with the fire of a million suns except for one thing: pre-existing conditions. That is the one thing you cannot change people’s minds on,” Wilson told TPM. “Everyone has a story about their cousin or wife or friend who couldn’t get insurance before Obamacare. So if your message is: ‘I’m going to repeal Obamacare,’ people hear ‘I’m going to take away your preexisting conditions.'”
A significant portion of the state’s massive population is enrolled in Medicare, and thus shielded from the administration’s blows to the individual market. But younger and middle-class voters are currently experiencing large premium hikes, and nearly a million people in the state would benefit from the Medicaid expansion Scott has refused to enact.
“If Scott has an Achilles heel, it’s health care,” said Schale, pointing to Scott’s pre-politics career as a hospital executive whose company was fined hundreds of millions for defrauding Medicare and Medicaid. “It’s a major reason people don’t trust him. … The last place Scott wants this election to be fought is over health care.”