Scott bid boosts GOP Senate hopes

Scott bid boosts GOP Senate hopes
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand urges opposition to Kavanaugh: Fight for abortion rights 'is now or never' Trump claims tariffs on foreign nations will rescue US steel industry: report Bannon announces pro-Trump movie, operation team ahead of midterms: report MORE and Republicans got a shot in the arm Monday when Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) formally announced he would challenge Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonElection Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' Google releases archive of online political ads The Hill's Morning Report — GOP seeks to hold Trump’s gains in Midwest states MORE (D).

The decision, which came after the White House publicly pressed Scott to enter the race, turned the race into the marquee Senate matchup of 2018. It’s expected to be the most expensive contest in the nation this fall, with money flowing from both sides.

In Scott, Republicans believe they’ve finally landed a competitor who can use his established political operation and personal wealth to unseat Nelson. Scott spent tens of millions of his own money to boost his successful 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial campaigns.

“Rick Scott is going to run a pretty big and energetic campaign, so it’s going to be a lot more difficult for Bill Nelson to rely on the incompetence of his political opponents as he has in the past,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist in Florida.

Nelson faced his toughest challenge when he was first elected to the Senate in 2000. But since then, he’s cruised to victory in his past two reelection races.

Nelson, the only elected Democrat holding statewide office in Florida, is one of 10 Senate Democrats up for reelection in a state that Trump won in 2016. But Trump only carried Florida, a perennial swing state, by a little more than a point.

With seven months before the general election, Florida is expected to yet again play host to the most expensive Senate race in the country. It will come fresh off Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio’s pro-family, conservative family leave policy promotes stability Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary MORE’s (R) reelection race, which totaled nearly $60 million.

Florida contains some of the most costly media markets in the country, but Scott and Nelson will have both hefty campaign war chests and plenty of aid from outside groups.

Scott spent a total of $83 million of his own money between his two gubernatorial races, according to local news outlets.

Meanwhile, Nelson has raised more than $10 million, and has at least $8 million in his campaign account.

In his announcement speech, Scott laid out clearly what issues he plans to highlight in his Senate campaign.

Scott largely focused on Florida’s economic development and job creation since he took office in 2010. And he touted the state’s role in helping Puerto Ricans who were displaced by Hurricane Maria late last year, which brought as many as 300,000 island residents to Florida.

But Scott quickly pivoted to the dysfunction that has captivated the nation’s capital and vowed to fix Washington. Without naming his opponent, Scott made the case that Nelson, 75, should be voted out after three terms in the Senate — and called for term limits to be instituted in Congress.

“We have to all acknowledge that Washington’s a disaster. There’s a lot of tired thinking up there. Here’s what we shouldn’t be doing — we shouldn’t be sending the same types of people to Washington,” Scott told supporters at his campaign launch in Orlando.

“I’m not accepting the same result. We can change Washington, we must change Washington, we will change Washington together,” he said.

Democrats say Scott, 65, is too close to Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP senator reviving effort to rein in Trump on tariffs The Hill's 12:30 Report GOP’s midterm strategy takes shape MORE (R-Ky.) — connections that they say will cost him votes.

“He’s trying to run against Washington even though it’s controlled by his party, run by an agenda he endorses,” said Eric Jotkoff, a former communications director for the Florida Democratic Party.

Nelson hit back at Scott after the announcement.

The senator specifically criticized Scott for his position on opening Florida coastal waters to offshore drilling, an unpopular issue in the state because of the threat it could pose to the tourism industry. Nelson argued that Scott supported opening the waters for drilling, until a Trump administration proposal from Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Interior drilling auction sees few bids | Big oil targets Florida in offshore drilling fight | Puerto Rico utility says all customers now have power Oil industry targets Florida in new offshore drilling advocacy push Fewer than 1 percent of offshore drilling tracts auctioned by Trump receive bids MORE to allow drilling sparked an outcry.

"Just until recently, he gets Secretary Zinke of the Interior to come down and say, at Gov. Scott's request, that we're not going to drill in south Florida, when, in fact, that's still in their rule," Nelson said during a CNN interview on Monday afternoon.

"That's just one example of changing over seven and a half years of him doing something else, being very friendly to the oil industry to drill off of Florida," he said.

Scott has frequently been in the national spotlight recently, even before announcing his Senate bid.

The governor led the state’s recovery after Hurricane Irma hit Florida last year. While Democrats have repeatedly hammered him over his response to nursing home deaths that resulted from the hurricane, the attacks don’t seem to have seriously dented his popularity.

Scott currently enjoys the highest approval rating he’s received since taking office in 2010. A Quinnipiac University poll from late February found that he has an approval rating of 49 percent, compared to 40 percent who disapprove.

The most recent approval numbers are from after the hurricane, but prior to the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that focused attention again on the state.

At his campaign launch, Scott didn't mention his role in the gun control debate that has since roiled his state and the country. Following the shooting, Scott signed a law that raises the minimum age to purchase a firearm and allows local municipalities to choose to arm teachers.

Still, Scott faces some big hurdles in his campaign — including several factors that are largely out of his control.

Republicans have braced for a potential Democratic wave election since midterm elections are typically referendums on the party that occupies the White House. Democratic voter enthusiasm has helped deliver the party victories in some Republican strongholds, suggesting that Democrats will have the upper hand in November.

Some GOP strategists believe the national environment and Trump’s underwater numbers in the state could drag down Scott, who chaired a super PAC backing Trump in 2016.

“In a generic year, he would be a prohibitive favorite to beat Bill Nelson in this race,” said Wilson, an outspoken Trump critic. “He has everything else going for him: money, organization, reputation, good numbers on the economy — but he’s got the overhang of Donald Trump.”

Scott won his gubernatorial races in 2010 and 2014 by narrow margins — even though the political environment in those years favored Republicans nationally. Democrats are quick to point out that Scott has never run in a year when the headwinds will be against him.

“It’s something that Rick Scott has never been able to show: he really can motivate voters himself or make a case for himself,” Jotkoff said. “He has always relied on the excitement and the national winds in order to turn voters out.”