Democrats and the Governor's Office: All About What Bill Nelson Will Do
Around the State
Word around town this week is that U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., could be setting his sights on Gov. Rick Scott in 2014, leading to speculation that if he defeats the Republican incumbent, he would appoint former Gov. Charlie Crist, the current favorite for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, to the U.S. Senate.
Nelson is clearly the strongest horse in the Democrats’ stable, but that doesn’t mean he is a lock to run against Scott in 2014. Crist could certainly stand aside for Nelson. Having run for the U.S. Senate twice and lost, the governor who turned his back on re-election to the job could be more interested in Washington than returning to Tallahassee. If Nelson sets his sights on Tallahassee, Crist becomes the Democratic favorite for his Senate seat.
The question, of course, is what Nelson will do. During his more than four decades in Florida politics, Nelson has always had one foot in Tallahassee while the other is in the Beltway.
Though Nelson has spent much of his political career in Washington, he does have a good deal of experience in Tallahassee. In 1972, while Richard Nixon was cruising to a second term, Nelson was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives, where he stayed until he was elected to Congress in 1978.
Nelson won some fame during his 12 years in Congress, mainly for being a member of a space shuttle flight back in 1986. But he turned his sights back on Tallahassee making a gubernatorial bid in 1990. It was a fiasco. In the primaries, Nelson took former U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles to task, arguing that his fellow Democrat, who was 60, was too old to be effective as governor. Chiles buried Nelson in a landslide, winning almost 70 percent of the vote in the primary and going on to trounce Gov. Bob Martinez in the general election.
Despite his humiliating primary loss, Nelson bounced back and returned to Tallahassee. While 1994 was a Republican year across the nation, Nelson managed to defeat Republican Tim Ireland to become state treasurer. For six years in that role, Nelson served in the Florida Cabinet, beating Ireland again in a rematch and serving under Chiles and Gov. Jeb Bush.
In 2000, Nelson turned his eyes back to Washington. While Republican candidate George W. Bush eked out a victory in Florida over Al Gore in the presidential race, Nelson beat Republican Bill McCollum by a larger margin on the undercard to win a U.S. Senate seat. Since that time, Nelson has remained popular, holding off Katharine Harris in 2006 and impressively turning back Connie Mack last year.
While Republicans have generally been defeating Democrats in statewide races in recent years, Nelson has been the one proven winner for his party. With Scott continuing to struggle in the polls and Democrats having some concerns about Crist -- stemming from his 2010 bolt from the GOP to run for the U.S. Senate with no party affiliation, then jumping over to the Democrats two years later -- Nelson’s name has some Dems talking as a possible gubernatorial candidate.
Last month, Nelson discounted the possibility of running for governor in 2014, but he did not exactly slam the door on it.
Nelson has not been shy about picking fights with Scott in recent days, either.
Still, there are other factors. After two terms in the Senate, Nelson chairs the Aging Committee. A larger plume could fall into his lap after the 2014 elections. If the Democrats hold onto control of the Senate, Nelson has a good chance of chairing the prominent Commerce, Science and Transportaion Committee because U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is retiring. However, many pundits are giving Republicans good odds to win the Senate in 2014, and that could dictate what Nelson does.
Ironically, age could also be a factor. Nelson turned 70 last year -- 10 years older than Chiles was during that bitter primary back in 1990. Of course, Chiles died of a heart attack in the last days of his second term. Nelson will be 72 if he is sworn in as governor in 2015, which would easily make him the oldest man to take the oath of office in Florida’s history. Nelson’s arguments made in 1990 about needing a younger man in the executive branch could come back and haunt him a quarter of a century later.
In the meantime, with Crist and former state CFO Alex Sink still on the sidelines and pondering whether to run against him in 2014, Rick Scott now has to face the possibility of taking on the most prominent and popular Democrat in Florida over the last two decades. Whether he jumps in or stays out, Bill Nelson will have a major impact on the 2014 gubernatorial race.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.