Facing the toughest reelection of his 18-year Senate career, Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonHow will Biden's Afghanistan debacle impact NASA's Artemis return to the moon? Biden to talk Russia, anti-corruption with Ukraine's president Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos wages lawfare on NASA and SpaceX MORE (D) is expected to get a boost from another name on the ballot: Florida's younger and more progressive gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum (D).
Appearing with Gillum's name on the ballot could help Nelson overcome a challenge from Florida’s current Republican Gov. Rick Scott in November by bringing out more minority voters and progressive whites, according to multiple Democratic operatives in the state.
Little known before this year, Tallahassee's African-American mayor has gained strong momentum after unexpectedly winning the Democratic nomination for Florida governor in August with a strong progressive message.
Nelson and Gillum already appeared together at a Democratic "winning-ticket" rally shortly after the primary and at a separate event earlier this month.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times last month, Nelson acknowledged that Gillum, 39, had energized voters and could ultimately ramp up turnout in November.
"He's bringing a lot of new energy to the table and I think it's going to produce more African-Americans, I think it's going to produce more young people," he said.
"And hopefully I might have some value that I bring to the ballot as well."
Nelson has benefitted from having strong candidates on the Democratic ticket before. In 2012, he faced a challenge from Republican Connie Mack, who drastically outspent the senator.
But Nelson benefited from strong turnout by a coalition of minority voters out to support former President Obama's reelection bid, handing the then-president his second consecutive win in the state — and helping the senator win a third term.
The three-term senator will now need many of those same voters to cast ballots for him in November, though in much more difficult circumstances.
Nelson is among 10 Senate Democrats seeking reelection this year in states won by President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE in 2016, and Democrats see holding onto the seat as vital to their goal of retaking control of the chamber in November.
He is due to debate Scott for the first time on Tuesday in a race seen as a "toss-up" by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows a tight race, though three more recent surveys showed Nelson pulling ahead of Scott.
But voter turnout, especially among minority voters, tends to drop off in non-presidential election years.
Rep. Charlie CristCharles (Charlie) Joseph CristGovernors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight Trump announces endorsement in GOP race to replace Crist in Florida GOP leader taking proxy voting fight to Supreme Court MORE (D-Fla.), for example, failed to amass the same support among African-American voters in his unsuccessful 2014 gubernatorial bid against Scott that Obama garnered two years earlier.
But as the first African-American to secure a major party’s nomination for the Florida governor’s mansion, Gillum could drive up support among the black and Latino voters that made up Obama’s winning coalition.
Obama also stepped into the fray on Monday, handing endorsements to both Nelson and Gillum as part of 260 endorsements across the country.
The Tallahassee mayor has campaigned on a strong progressive message, including expanding health care and ramping up spending on education.
Nelson, by contrast, has forged a moderate message through a long political career that has included 12 years in the House.
That kind of record, though, makes it a two-way street for both Gillum and Nelson, according to strategists.
While Nelson would benefit from having Gillum’s name on the ballot among progressives, Gillum would also benefit as Nelson could bring out more moderate and independent voters in November that might not be motivated by Gillum’s brand of progressivism.
Nelson has help beyond Gillum.
Appearing at an event in Orlando — the center of the Puerto Rican diaspora in Florida — on Monday, Nelson received the endorsement of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who called the senator a “great champion for the people of Puerto Rico.”
That support could be important given Nelson will likely need heavy support from Hispanic voters, who make up roughly one-fifth of Florida’s electorate.
A recent poll, however, showed Nelson trailing Scott by 14 points among Florida Hispanics over the age of 50 — 52-38 percent.
Scott has strong favorability among Cuban-American voters, who tend to lean Republican, and also narrowly leads Nelson in favorability among Democratic-leaning Puerto Rican voters, according to the AARP/Univision/Bendixen & Amandi International poll.
But three other polls showed Nelson with outsize leads among Hispanic or Latino voters.
A Quinnipiac University poll put Nelson ahead by 22 points, an NBC News/Marist poll put him ahead by 20 points and a poll by the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida put him ahead by roughly 13 points.
Rosselló has also endorsed Gillum, even as he has also had kind words for Scott, commending his administration’s response to hurricanes Irma and Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico last year.
“I have to establish that Gov. Scott has also been a friend,” said Rosselló. “But I am here in spite of that because I believe in Bill Nelson.”
Democrats still believe Nelson can pull off a win.
Eric Jotkoff, a Democratic consultant who worked for Obama’s 2012 campaign in Florida, said that both Nelson and Gillum had successfully organized networks of voters across the state, and in doing so, have strengthened the party’s ticket as a whole.
That unity could help make the difference, Jotkoff argued, at a time when Scott and former Rep. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisCalifornia dreaming did not become reality for Republicans Florida landlord requiring proof of vaccinations from tenants Anthrax was the COVID-19 of 2001 MORE (R), who's running against Gillum in Florida, have kept more distance between each other.
“Right now with a month left in this race and ballots dropping too, you have a strong Democratic ticket led by Nelson and Gillum, while Republicans are so busy attacking each other,” he said.
—Updated at 9:25 a.m.