Attack ads and Hurricane Michael. That just about sums up the race for U.S. Senate in Florida in this mid-term election year.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott jumped out to a slim lead in the polling over the summer, to go with a major spending advantage — more than $27 million, compared to Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson’s $6 million – according to the website Open Secrets.
Charles Zelden, a political scientist at Nova Southeastern University, says the tone of the campaign has met expectations.
“In both cases, they have to paint the other side as incompetent or incapable of doing a good job as our senator,” said Zelden.
The ads on both sides are coming from two sources – the individual campaigns, and from super PACs, which by federal law cannot have any connection with each other. One super PAC supporting Scott has been reminding voters of Nelson’s time in Washington.
“A professional politician for 46 years, Nelson’s learned some tricks; cheap tricks like attack your opponent regardless of the facts,” says the voiceover. “After almost half a century in office, why can’t Nelson find much good to say about himself?’”
Meanwhile, a super PAC backing Nelson has been focusing on some of the issues during Scott’s two terms as governor.
“Rick Scott vetoed millions in health care funds, and refused federal funds that would have covered 750,000 Floridians,” says the ad. “Scott puts insurance companies first; Bill Nelson puts Florida first.”
Those super PAC ads, says Zelden, appear to fit neatly into each campaign’s game plan.
“You’ve got Nelson [with] sort of a good-guy reputation; you’ve got to make Nelson seem – like the ads have been saying, an ‘empty suit,’” said Zelden. “Meanwhile, if you’re going to beat a sitting governor, you’re going to need to point out all the things he did wrong. And that also can get pretty personal.”
However, ads from the campaigns themselves have sounded kinder and gentler – to a degree.
“If Washington was a business, it would be bankrupt by now; they don’t accomplish anything, they don’t solve any problems,” says Scott in a recent ad. “In my opinion, you ought to send business people up there to solve problems.”
“I believe a public office is a public trust,” Nelson says in one of his spots. “You’re there to serve the people, not the special interests. If you know who you’re fighting for and willing to put the politics aside, you can get a lot done.”
Enter Hurricane Michael – the Category-4 storm that devastated a large part of the Florida Panhandle. Both Scott and Nelson suspended their campaigns in the storm’s aftermath, and both made extensive tours of the stricken areas. The decisions to suspend, says Zelden, may actually work to Scott’s advantage.
“If [Scott] comes across as strong and effective in dealing with the hurricane, that gives people reason to want to vote for him,” Zelden says. “At the same time Nelson can’t really be campaigning actively against the Governor, when the Governor is out there working to help people from the hurricane.”
Zelden expects a fast restart to both campaigns, and Scott’s may have already gotten a head start. On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Governor appeared to renege on his promise to suspend his campaign by releasing a new ad shot during the post-Michael cleanup.
“Governor Scott – he’s leading hurricane recovery,” intoned the voice on the ad. “Directing relief efforts and even housing state troopers in his own home. And Senator Nelson? Running false attack ads mocking Gov. Scott’s service in the Navy.”
The ad is a response to a 30-second spot from VoteVets, which takes aim at the Governor’s ever-present Navy baseball cap. It accuses Scott of ripping off the military's health care company when he led health care conglomerate Columbia/HCA.
“I see Rick Scott wearing that Navy hat where he goes,” says Florida Navy Veteran Alan Madison in the ad. “Let me tell you what he did to veterans. His hospital company stole millions defrauding the military’s healthcare program. Governor, this hat represents what the Navy stands for - honor and integrity; where’s yours?"
Bill Nelson is seeking his fourth term in the Senate. Rick Scott is termed out as Governor. Some believe the race could determine whether Republicans maintain control of the Senate, where the GOP holds a 51-49 advantage.
“The Democrats can’t really afford to lose Florida, if they have a chance of taking the Senate,” says Nova Southeastern’s Charles Zelden. “They need voters to come out of the woodwork that their people aren’t expecting. If they can, then I think they can take the Senate. [But] that’s a big ‘if.’”
Democrats are defending seven of the 10 most competitive races, and a majority would mean holding onto those seats, then going after others — including Florida -- which the non-partisan Cook Political Report rates as a toss-up.