Bill Nelson gears up campaigning as he seeks to prove naysayers wrong

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), fresh out of a sleepy, uncontested primary season, is revving up his reelection campaign.

The three-term senator is facing one of the toughest reelection bids of his political career as he faces off against Republican Rick Scott, the term-limited governor of Florida who is backed by President Trump as well as a vast personal fortune.

But he has been dogged by headlines describing a sleepy reelection bid at a time when Scott has already been on the air and barnstorming the state, fueling anxiety among Democrats that Nelson, 75, lacks the energy and visibility to defeat the former health care executive.

{mosads} Nelson is now seeking to put those doubts to rest as his campaign as he goes into full-campaign mode. 

On Friday afternoon he appeared at a Democratic “Winning Ticket” rally in Orlando, along with Andrew Gillum, the progressive mayor of Tallahassee who notched a stunning win in the Democratic gubernatorial primary this week.

“I’m going to be there side by side with Andrew and we’re going to take this to victory and we’re going to turn Florida around,” Nelson said before a crowded room of Democrats.

Gillum returned the praise, calling Nelson “a stalwart for all of the things we believe.”

“He has been a fighter in all of the things that matter to us,” the 39-year-old mayor said.

The joint appearance with Gillum comes two days after Nelson launched his first TV ad of the cycle, touting himself as a public servant with a record of putting party politics aside.

“I believe a public office is a public trust. You’re there to serve the people, not the special interests. Just wake up every day and do what’s right,” Nelson says in the ad, which is airing statewide in both English and Spanish.

After focusing on field organizing and more traditional campaign events, the TV ad and the rally mark a pivot for the Nelson campaign as he begins to fire back just at the time when they believe more voters will be paying attention to the race.

The Cook Political Report has rated the race as a “toss-up” and polls have shown a tight contest. Scott currently holds a narrow lead over Nelson – 45.7 to 44.2 percent – according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.

Nelson’s decision to hold back until the fall comes as Scott, 65, has hardly held back.

The governor, who faced only nominal primary opposition, has blanketed the airwaves with attack ads depicting Nelson as a career politician with little to show for his time in Washington – though so far it has not given him a huge boost in the polls.

One spot earlier this year points out that the Florida Democrat entered the U.S. House the same year that Ford introduced the since-discontinued Pinto –in 1978. The implication obviously being that Nelson is a relic of a bygone era.

Scott has also been aggressively reaching out to Latino voters – a key electorate in the Sunshine State.

He beat Nelson to the punch in launching a Spanish-language campaign website, speaks openly about how he is learning Spanish and talks up his administration’s efforts to assist Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island last year.

Scott has always shown a willingness to pour millions of dollars of his personal fortune into his campaigns. So far this cycle, the Trump-backed governor has spent at least $20.6 million of his own money on his Senate bid.

The head start has had some Democrats worried, but Nelson and his backers insist it’s still not late.

Democrats and Nelson’s allies say the senator is set to mount an aggressive campaign against Scott, targeting his record on matters like the environment – a crucial issue in a state that depends heavily on ecotourism to fuel its economy – as well as health care and public education.

“It’s never going to be comfortable,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who advised Charlie Crist (D) in his failed 2014 bid against Gov. Scott.

“Whether Scott was on TV or not, just the nature of the race nobody should have felt good about. That doesn’t mean Bill’s not going to win. He could absolutely win. But there’s never going to be a moment when this race isn’t neck and neck. It’s never going to be easy.”

Nelson has also reserved $18 million in TV advertising through Election Day, while Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with Senate Democratic leadership, and its affiliated nonprofit Majority Forward have also reserved $23 million in the fall.

“I suspect that within a week or so, you’re going to hear people saying a lot less that Nelson’s not doing anything,” Schale said.

Meanwhile, the senator could get a boost from Gillum, who is vying to become Florida’s first black governor, in what could be a mutually beneficial relationship.

Gillum has shown an ability to reach out to minority and progressive white voters, notching his biggest wins on Tuesday in counties where African-American voters make up sizable portions of the electorate, like Broward and Miami-Dade in South Florida and Duval County in the north.

Nelson, with his reputation as an old-school senator, could also help boost Gillum by helping fuel turnout among moderate Democrats and independents – voting blocs that Gillum will need if he hopes to beat Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) in November.

“If Rick Scott had a heart this Democratic ticket would strike fear into it,” David Bergstein, the press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) said. 

“With these two at the top of the ticket … there is significant evidence that there will be a powerful expansion of the Democratic electorate in Florida that is extraordinarily problematic for Republicans like Scott,” he added.

Democrats also point to the fact that Scott won his electoral victories in 2010 and 2014 only narrowly – by just about 1 point – and during two good years for Republicans.

2018 is different, however, given Trump  – who narrowly won the state by just over a point in 2016 – remains largely unpopular, especially among key constituencies like Puerto Ricans. Scott has yet to campaign with Trump in the state.

What’s more, a series of special election victories for Democrats in the state legislature has also bolstered the party’s hopes.

All of this is giving Nelson’s campaign confidence that the senator will defeat Scott come November.

“Sen. Nelson believes that if you just do your job and, as he’s always done, treat public office as a public trust, the politics will take care of itself,” Carlie Waibel, a Nelson campaign spokesperson, said. 

Tags Bill Nelson Charlie Crist Donald Trump Ron DeSantis

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