Resurfacing Bill Nelson Could Sink Charlie Crist, Rick Scott
Around the State
Rick Scott and Charlie Crist can be excused if they have indigestion at their Thanksgiving dinners. After laying low for months, Bill Nelson has resurfaced, creating more buzz that he could leave the U.S. Senate to run for governor.
Nelson sent up trial balloons this week with his team telling the media the senator would be open to running for the Democratic nomination if Crist slips up. That’s not what Crist wants to hear barely a week after he kicked off his gubernatorial bid.
Nelson is currently the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida and looking at his victory over Republican challenger Connie Mack in 2012 shows why he is a major threat to defeat Scott. Republicans and conservatives are grumbling now that Mack was an underwhelming candidate who coasted through a primary and relied on his father’s name, leaving him unprepared for a general election. What’s forgotten is that national Republicans and conservatives targeted Nelson as they looked to pick up the Senate in 2012 and showcased Mack. A favorite of Sean Hannity from Fox News and the Conservative Political Action Conference, Mack had more than his share of chances to shine in the political limelight. As a close ally of Mitt Romney, Mack’s team also worked closely with the Republican presidential campaign effort.
It didn’t matter. While Barack Obama edged Romney to win Florida’s Electoral College votes, Nelson routed Mack in a landslide, taking 55 percent while the Republican trailed badly with 42 percent.
As he has shown throughout his political career, Nelson does well in places where no other Democrat in Florida can compete. Counties that backed Rick Scott and Romney, like Brevard and Duval, went for Nelson. Looking at the map, it’s impressive how, in 2012, Nelson carried other counties all across the state that Scott won in 2010 -- Flagler, Hamilton, Hendry, Hernando, Monroe, Okeechobee, Pasco, Polk, Seminole and Volusia. In counties that Scott and Mack took, Nelson generally did better than Sink. Nelson also outperformed Sink in some of the most populous counties -- Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Orange -- in the state, which puts him in good shape if he challenges Scott next year.
After 40 years of interacting with voters, Nelson is easily a much better candidate for Democrats than Crist. Nelson is not marred by switching parties and positions the way Crist is. While generally seen as bland, which has helped prevent him from achieving the stature of his old rival Chiles or Bob Graham, Nelson is also seen as a centrist. This puts him in play in areas where no other Democrats can do well. If a Democrat beats out or comes close to edging Scott in Duval, Marion or Polk counties, the governor is left with little in the way of a path to victory. Nelson has proven he can win there and in other parts of the state Republicans usually take for granted.
But if Scott has much to fear from a Nelson candidacy, Crist has even more to lose. Sure, Democrats cheered Crist’s entrance into the race but, right now, their only other option is Nan Rich. Plenty of Democrats are only backing Crist as the best option for winning their first gubernatorial race in 20 years. But Nelson’s the best horse in the Democratic stable in Florida. If Nelson gets in, Democrats wanting a winner will ditch the Crist bandwagon in droves.
Nelson’s not the most liberal of Democrats, as his late support for same sex marriage shows. But Crist won’t be able to run to Nelson’s left after running for years as a conservative Republican. Nelson’s team will remind Democratic primary voters that Crist used to oppose abortion and gun control. Rich is trying that right now but Nelson would be able to eclipse her in fundraising and launch an all-out media blitz against Crist.
If matched up against Crist in a Democratic primary, Nelson should have little problems dispatching the former Republican. Nelson has been building support among Florida Democrats for four decades. Crist has been reaching out to the same Democrats for four years.
The question remains whether Nelson will run. It was assumed Nelson would stay in Washington, especially as Democratic chances of retaining the Senate increase. If he stays and Democrats keep the Senate, Nelson has an excellent shot at chairing the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee since Jay Rockefeller, the current chairman, is retiring in 2014.
The timing of Nelson’s trial balloons couldn’t be worse for Crist. The former Republican needs to build a network of donors and supporters from scratch. With Nelson still looming over the race, some Democrats will be hesitant in backing Crist until the senator makes a final decision.
Scott and Crist have spent recent weeks exchanging attacks but Nelson’s resurfacing changes the political calculations for both of them. Nelson is the strongest candidate when matched against Scott and can easily dispatch Crist in the Democratic primary. Both Scott and Crist should be losing sleep over the possibility that Nelson enters the race.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.