GOP looks to injure Nelson over Russia comments

GOP looks to injure Nelson over Russia comments
© Greg Nash

Republicans are hounding Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonMidterm polling data favors Democrats — in moderation Poll: Nelson and Scott tied in Florida Senate race Nelson campaign to donate K from Al Franken group to charity MORE (D-Fla.) over his warning that Russian hackers broke into some of Florida's voter registration systems – and they have no plans to drop the matter anytime soon.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) posted a video on its YouTube page Wednesday showing Nelson speaking at a campaign event and characterizing the Florida Democrat as "admitting" that his claim of Russian meddling "was just an assumption."

Nelson made the initial claim last week in response to a question about election security from the Tampa Bay Times. But he offered no evidence to back up his warning, which he attributed to top lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee – a panel of which he is not a member.

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Republicans quickly seized on the seemingly off-the-cuff comment, with Nelson's GOP Senate challenger, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, demanding that the three-term Democratic incumbent provide proof of his claim.

The state's top elections officials, Secretary of State Ken Detzner (R), also sent a letter to the heads of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI on Friday asking for information on Nelson's claim.

"I don’t think it should go away. I’m going to try my hardest not to let it go away," Taryn Fenske, the communications director for the Florida GOP, said Thursday. "Now I just feel like he's digging himself in deeper."

"Until the essential question is answered – was Nelson revealing classified information or did he make this up – until that answer is clearly marked out by the senator, I think that these questions are not going away," Lauren Schenone, the press secretary for Scott's campaign, said.

Republicans locally and nationally pointed to Nelson's comments at an event in Lake City, Fla., on Tuesday in an effort to seize on his initial Russian hacking claim.

During the event, Nelson said that he and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioJudd Gregg: Two ideas whose time has not come Nikki 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 MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence panel, had been warned earlier this year that "the Russians are in the records" but that it was unclear which counties' systems had been breached.

Nelson also sought to tie the issue to a letter he and Rubio sent last month to Detzner, in which the senators warned of broad "cyber threats" and advised state officials to take advantage of federal resources to secure voting systems. That letter makes no mention of current Russian infiltration in voting systems.

"It would be foolish to think that if they were in the election records in 2016 that they are not continuing," Nelson said. "What has happened is this has gotten political. So certain political public figures have taken that and tried to use it for partisan, political purposes."

Nelson is considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection this year and faces a fierce – and expensive – challenge from Scott, a multi-millionaire businessman who has the endorsement of President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE.

While federal officials have said that Russian hackers sought to break into voter systems in Florida and other states in 2016, DHS  said last week that it has "not seen any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure" in 2018.

A federal indictment unsealed last month alleged that Russian hackers sent more than 100 fraudulent emails to "organizations and personnel involved in administering elections in numerous Florida counties," though it's unclear whether those efforts were successful in breaching voting systems.

Scott hit Nelson over his remarks again this week, questioning whether the senator had divulged classified information or had simply lied about the alleged breaches. 

"From my standpoint, we're in the middle of a primary election, people are voting, absentee ballots are out, early voting has started in some places and people need to know the facts," Scott said Tuesday. "I don't think he's been transparent."

--Updated at 5:52 p.m.