Florida Senate set for big-dollar fight

Florida Senate set for big-dollar fight
© Hill Illustration/Garrett Evans

Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) decision to challenge Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonNelson campaign to donate K from Al Franken group to charity Political shenanigans mask true problems in Puerto Rico The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump MORE (D) sets the stage for a contest that could become the most expensive election race of the year — and potentially in U.S. history.

Strategists in the state predict that the Scott-Nelson showdown could come close to or surpass Pennsylvania’s Senate race in 2016, which cost a record $188 million in total candidate and outside spending.

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The two-term governor has a history of using his vast personal wealth to boost his campaigns. Scott, who built his personal fortune as a hospital executive and has a net worth of about $150 million, spent about $83 million of his own money on his two gubernatorial races.

With Scott expected to self-fund again, Florida is poised to have yet another expensive Senate race. In 2016, the state had the fourth most expensive race of the cycle, with the fight for Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioNikki Haley: New York Times ‘knew the facts’ about curtains and still released story March For Our Lives founder leaves group, says he regrets trying to 'embarrass' Rubio Rubio unloads on Turkish chef for 'feasting' Venezuela's Maduro: 'I got pissed' MORE’s (R) seat costing more than $110 million. The high costs of statewide Florida races are driven by high ad rates in 10 Florida media markets.

Strategists estimate that the candidates could spend about $2 million a week to saturate the state with their messages. That number would grow significantly for outside groups running ads. And, because of the state’s diverse demographics, candidates will likely have to buy ads in each media market.

“It could eclipse Pennsylvania in terms of this one race. In terms of statewide spending, it’ll eclipse all states in the country,” said Florida GOP strategist Adam Goodman, who noted that the state would also have hyper-competitive races for the governor’s mansion and several key House seats.

“You’re facing a cycle where the spending is going to be so out of control it’s going to be like a man-made hurricane of commercials coming at people incessantly by early May,” he said.

Some strategists say Scott won’t hesitate to dip into his fortune again to topple Nelson, especially since Scott could use the Senate as a launching pad for a potential presidential bid.

But first, Scott is expected to rely on contributions. Scott is headed to Washington next week for fundraising, according to The Washington Post.

Democrats have been gearing up all cycle for a high-dollar race. Since the beginning of the cycle, Nelson has raised more than $13 million, with $10.5 million in cash reserves.

To counter the deluge of Republican money about to hit the Sunshine State, Senate Democratic groups have been softening Scott up for months with attacks.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s focus on Florida indicates that it will be a top priority of the cycle. The campaign committee tasked with taking back the Senate has already spent amounts in the high five figures with multiple ad spots and a website, SelfServingScott.com.

And Senate Majority PAC, a top Democratic super PAC, pre-empted Scott’s Monday announcement with a new digital ad — part of a six-figure ad buy in Florida.

Republicans, meanwhile, will be spending to boost Scott. The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched new Google ads on Thursday, and GOP super PAC Senate Leadership Fund has launched a digital ad campaign to promote its anti-Nelson website, backbenchbill.com.

According to the Federal Election Commission, the Senate Leadership Fund has spent a combined total of about $12,500 in Florida since 2017. But the super PAC is planning to be a much larger force in Florida over the next seven months. The group was the top spender in Florida’s 2016 Senate race, with $13 million spent, according to OpenSecrets.

If Scott decides to spend his own money at the levels he did in his gubernatorial races, he could help alleviate the spending pressure on the GOP and free up money for races elsewhere in the country.

Republicans are looking to grow their ranks in the upper chamber, expanding beyond their slim 51-seat majority. The 2018 Senate map holds plenty of offensive opportunities for the GOP, with 10 Democratic incumbents up for reelection in states that President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE won in 2016.

GOP strategists say Scott’s willingness to self-fund could allow Republicans to shift up to $80 million from the Florida race to other big races outside the state.

“It does more to help Republicans in the other 49 states than it does even in Florida, because it forces Democrats to have to spend money to defend Nelson that they wouldn’t have had to otherwise spend,” said Terry Sullivan, who ran Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) presidential campaign. “That diverts money away from other races, defending other incumbents and trying to pick off other Republicans.”

Democrats are hopeful that political headwinds favoring Democrats will both save Nelson and, potentially, deliver them a Senate majority. But they acknowledge that they’ll be fighting against the GOP’s deep pockets.

“That’s going to take every dollar, every door knock and every volunteer possible because Republicans aren’t going to go lightly, and they’ve got deeper pockets now than they’ve ever had before and part of that is from self-funders like Rick Scott,” said Kevin Cate, a Florida Democratic strategist.

Even with Scott’s wealth, Democrats and even some Republicans believe the governor will have a difficult time overcoming Trump’s underwater approval ratings in the state. Trump, who personally recruited Scott for the Senate race, only won Florida by 1 point in 2016.

“No amount of money is going to make people forget that Rick Scott and Donald Trump are BFFs,” Cate said.

Republicans commended Scott for touting his economic record during his announcement speech and keeping the focus on Florida.

But they say it’ll be hard to avoid Trump’s shadow.

“It’s setting up clearly to be referendum on Donald Trump and a referendum on the governor’s nearly eight years in office,” said Goodman, the GOP strategist.