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No. 8: Bill Nelson, Under the Radar Democrat

March 22, 2015 - 7:00pm

Over the last five years, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson continued his stint as the most consistently effective Democrat in Florida in recent years, even as he often took a supporting role on the political stage.

Outside his ride on the space shuttle back in the 1980s, there is nothing flashy about Nelson. Polls constantly show many voters arent sure what they think of Floridas senior senator even though he has been in the Senate since 2000 and has been running for office, almost always successfully, far longer.

Nelson has played a supporting role in the Senate, never caring to associate with leading liberals that often, while never exactly, break with Democratic orthodoxy or the Obama White House, either. Now that Democrats are in the Senate minority for at least two years, Nelson has an even smaller role to play. While he will often wade into foreign policy, Nelson is quieter when it comes to some domestic issues.

This has led some Republicans to underestimate Nelson, something they have been doing for years, and it came back to haunt them in 2012. After the tea party movement propelled Republicans to big wins across Florida in 2010, Nelson appeared to be in trouble for a third Senate term. Instead, Nelson ran over then-U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., in a far bigger win than President Barack Obamas margin over former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., in the Sunshine State.

One thing he has going for him is that Nelson never takes his eyes off the Sunshine State and it shows with his efforts on everything ranging from investigating the Dozier School to protecting the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay to flood insurance. Nelsons attention to Florida has benefited him greatly and helped keep his name in the mix to run against Gov. Rick Scott, R-Fla., last year. Nelson eventually said no to running but he got some free exposure for a few months.

Keeping his eye on the ball has helped ensure Nelson is the only Democrat holding statewide office in Florida, even as his party has problems across the Sunshine State. Nelsons sunny demeanor and folksy personality have helped him prevail against Republican efforts to oust him.

Always a political survivor, Nelsons hard work back at home has paid off time and time again. It helped turn his campaign against Mack far less competitive than expected at the start. Nelson has often been under the radar but his work in the Senate and his big win over Mack make him one of the leading political personalities in Florida over the last five years.

(ABOUT THIS SERIES: Bill Nelson is the 13th in a special anniversary series of 20 political personalities who loomed large since early 2010, when Sunshine State News set up shop in Tallahassee.Who else made the list? Click here to find out.)

Reach Kevin Derby at or follow him on Twitter: @KevinDerbySSN

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