Where's Bill Nelson's Place in Politics Now?
Around the State
Even though he has been off center stage since deciding not to run against Rick Scott, Bill Nelson continues to try to claim his share of the spotlight even as his plans for 2018 draw much speculation.
Nelson’s in a bit of a strange political position. Over his many years in politics, Nelson has always been a bit in the shadow of other Florida politicians: old foe Lawton Chiles, Bob Graham, Jeb Bush. Even now, despite Democrats controlling the chamber, his Senate colleague Marco Rubio gets more attention than Nelson does despite being the junior senator from Florida.
There are also questions about where Nelson goes from here after passing on running against Scott. After his unexpectedly easy win over the hapless Connie Mack in 2012, Nelson is secure until 2018 when he will be 76. Many senators head toward the sidelines around that age and it’s possible Nelson will do the same. Factoring into the mix is the possibility that Nelson might not be able to chair a major committee like he’s always aspired to since the GOP’s chances of picking up the Senate in November continue to rise. What Nelson does in 2018 is still anyone’s guess but there are plenty of ambitious Republicans and Democrats ready to pounce if he doesn’t show signs he plans to stay.
For the moment, Nelson isn’t showing signs of going away. He played the loyal Democrat last week by hitting the campaign trail for Gwen Graham as she tries to take down Steve Southerland. Nelson has also tried to elbow his way into the limelight in recent weeks by trashing Scott on insurance and weighing in on everything from e-cigarettes to fracking to immigration.
With his low-key persona, Nelson often gets forgotten by Florida voters. Every six years, Nelson has to reintroduce himself to his constituents. It’s pretty telling that even though he has held political office for four decades, in most polls at least a quarter of the voters don’t know enough about Nelson to have an opinion of him.
Case in point: two recent polls on Nelson’s performance. Nelson didn’t exactly shine in a Rasmussen poll released earlier this month which showed him as 38 percent favorable, 37 percent unfavorable among voters, and the rest of them not having much opinion one way or the other. Nelson did better in a Quinnipiac poll from last month which had him at 45 percent favorable and 32 percent unfavorable.
Not surprisingly, both polls show a third of Republicans stick with Nelson, who has a gift for coming off as a moderate even as he votes the party line in Washington. Republicans often underestimate how well Nelson does with their own voters. Republican support for Nelson helps explain why he whipped Mack and Katherine Harris in his last two elections and why he outpaced Al Gore in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2012.
Simply put, Nelson’s bland, forgettable public persona -- even with his trip into space -- has helped him considerably. Nelson simply doesn’t draw Republican ire the way Alan Grayson, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Charlie Crist, Alcee Hastings and even Alex Sink do. On the flip side, even though he is the only consistent statewide winner they’ve seen lately, Nelson isn’t as beloved by Florida Democrats the way Reubin Askew, Chiles and Bob Graham were.
For the moment, Nelson is, as has so often been the case, the old piece of furniture in the attic of Florida politics: weathered, dependable, taken for granted and overlooked. But more than a few pairs of eyes are on Nelson as politicos both left and right try to figure out what he has in store come 2018.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.