After cruising through the Republican primary, Gov. Rick Scott is heading into what’s expected to be a bitter and expensive showdown with Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. Many believe the race ultimately could play a decisive role in which party controls the Senate.
Scott – who’s term-limited as governor – scored an easy win over California businessman Rocky De La Fuente, who earned attention this year by mounting U.S. Senate bids in multiple states at the same time. He did not campaign against Scott.
“If one predicts a really positive, Pollyannaish election, we’re not going to see that this time out,” says political scientist Susan MacManus.
The battle lines are clear-cut. Democrats are putting a lot of emphasis on keeping Nelson in that seat; Republicans see an opening in Florida, which possibly could offset losing a senate seat in another state.
“When a senate race in a state is seen as vital to control of the U.S. Senate; at a time where things like impeachment are being discussed and supreme court justices are being confirmed, the stakes are very, very high for both parties,” MacManus says.
It’s not totally clear just yet what the big issues will be in the campaign, says MacManus. Immigration is a given, and at the state level the environment, since the federal government plays a role in cleaning up the Everglades.
“Health care will be another one, obviously,” says MacManus. “The whole economy will be an issue; education often is a little less so in a senate race than it is in a [governor’s race], but they’re going to be big issues in the senate race.”
Even before voting started in Tuesday's primary, the 65-year-old Scott had been pounding Nelson with a barrage of television ads, many of them depicting the 75-year-old Nelson as a career politician who is out of touch.
“In 1978, the Ford Pinto was the best-selling small car in America,” intones the voiceover with disco music in the background. “Gas was 63 cents a gallon; and Bill Nelson was elected to Congress. Forty years later, a lot of things change; but Bill Nelson is still in Washington, still collecting a paycheck.”
The Nelson campaign this week launched its first statewide television ads, in both Spanish and English. The titles: "Oath" and "Juramento."
“I believe a public office is a public trust; you’re there to serve the people, not the special interests,” says Nelson in the ad. “Just wake up every day and do what’s right; if you know who you’re fighting for and you’re willing to put the politics aside, you can get a lot done.”
Just as much as it is a statewide race, Susan MacManus believes that Nelson vs. Scott will also go national as part of an overall referendum on President Trump – a close Scott ally.
“Just about every candidate running for governor had in their ads something about Donald Trump; you would have thought he was running for reelection this time out,” said MacManus. “Because the [Florida U.S. Senate] race is so nationalized, Trump is going to be a key part of the dialogue and the debates involving these two candidates.”
Historically the Florida Panhandle has gotten behind Republicans in statewide races. But MacManus predicts a little less solid GOP voting in 2018 because of the governor’s race.
“But it’s also the case that a lot of Anglo-Democrats in the Panhandle are more conservative,” MacManus says. “And will be looking more towards Scott’s and Nelson’s positions on national politics when it comes to casting a ballot for the Senate.”
After Andrew Gillum’s upset win Tuesday making him the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, many want him and Bill Nelson to join forces on the campaign trail. MacManus says there’s a lot of common ground.
“The money, the issues that each of them is going to stress on the campaign trail, constant joint appearances at major events where it appears that they’re more unified; that they’re a team,” says MacManus. “Those are all ways that you see a governor and a senate race being put on the same page.”
Over the next ten weeks leading up to the November 6 general election, MacManus has some advice for what voters need to look for in all races, beginning with the issues.
“Is it Florida or is it national politics that’s going to dominate even a non-presidential year? I think that’s one of the biggest question marks.”
In the latest average of polls by the website www.realclearpolitics.com, Rick Scott and Bill Nelson are in a statistical dead heat, with Scott ahead 46-44 percent.