Rick Scott set to face Bill Nelson in Florida's high-stakes Senate race

Rick Scott set to face Bill Nelson in Florida's high-stakes Senate race
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Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThis Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Two trajectories to Mars by the 2030s Russian weapons test endangers the International Space Station MORE (D-Fla.) is set to face off against Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) in what is expected to be one of the most closely watched – and expensive – Senate races of 2018.

Scott, a two-term governor, easily secured the Republican nomination to challenge Nelson on Tuesday, with The Associated Press projecting he won 89 percent of the vote. He faced only nominal primary opposition from perennial candidate Rocky De La Fuente, who is on the ballot in several states.

Nelson was uncontested for the Democratic Senate nomination.

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Republicans have set their sights on taking out Nelson, a longtime lawmaker who has served in the Senate since 2001.

Scott has wasted no time in mounting an aggressive campaign against the senior Florida senator, spending millions in the state’s notoriously expensive media markets to air attack ads.

Nelson has been far outspent by Scott, a wealthy health care executive, who has already dropped more than $20 million of his personal funds on his Senate bid.

So far, the Florida governor has dropped more than $27.7 million on the race.

Nelson, on the other hand, has spent just over $6 million, according to recent federal filings, leading to concerns he is being too complacent.

Both candidates have been dogged by unflattering headlines in recent weeks. Scott has faced questions about potential conflicts of interest arising from his investments, and accusations of favoring political donors for contracts and jobs.

For his part, Nelson has continued to face questions about a comment made to the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month suggesting that Russian hackers had penetrated voting systems throughout Florida.

To date, Nelson has provided no evidence for that claim and Scott’s campaign has demanded clarity on the remark.

The most recent polls show Scott with a slight lead over Nelson. A Florida Atlantic University poll released last week put Scott ahead 45-39 percent. Another survey conducted by the Jacksonville-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy last month showed a closer race with Scott leading 47-44 percent.

Democrats have insisted that Nelson is poised to step up his campaign game after the primary. And outside groups have already dropped tens of millions of dollars to boost Nelson.

Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with Senate Democratic leadership, and its affiliated nonprofit Majority Forward have already spent $13.75 million in the race, according to ad-buying sources. SMP has also reserved an additional $23 million in airtime this fall.

Also likely to factor into the race between Nelson and Scott this fall is President TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE, who encouraged the Florida governor to seek Nelson’s Senate seat early last year and repeatedly offered his endorsement in the race.

Trump beat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE in the state by just over 1 point in 2016. But Republicans see Nelson’s seat as a prime prospect for widening their majority in the Senate. The Cook Political Report, an election handicapper, currently rates the race as a "toss-up."

Scott was an early supporter of Trump. He penned an op-ed in USA Today in January 2016, praising the real estate mogul for “capturing the frustration of many Americans after seven years of President Obama’s very intentional government takeover of the U.S. economy.”

But more recently, Scott has also sought to distance himself from Trump, especially as he courts Latino voters in the state – a reminder of the increasingly important role of the voting bloc in Florida politics.

Nelson led Scott 44-37 percent among Puerto Rican voters in the state in a survey released earlier this month by a coalition of progressive Hispanic organizations. But Scott has talked up his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, and has taken several trips to the island since then.

Nelson was slower to step up outreach to Latino voters, trailing behind Scott in releasing a Spanish-language campaign website and ad spots. But he has sought to ramp up those efforts in recent months, as he seeks to secure support among one of Florida’s most influential voting blocs.