Rolling coverage: Nelson, Scott trade blows in Florida Senate debate


Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and Gov. Rick Scott (R) are squaring off in their first Senate debate on Tuesday.

President Trump narrowly won Florida in 2016 and Republicans are eyeing a takeover of Nelson’s seat as they seek to defend and expand their narrow majority in the Senate.

Scott, the two-term governor of Florida and former health care executive, has mounted an aggressive challenge for Nelson’s Senate seat. He’s so far outspent his Democratic opponent four-to-one this cycle, blanketing the state’s airwaves with ads going after the three-term incumbent.

But Nelson has risen in the polls in recent weeks and Democrats are betting that his decades-old reputation as a pragmatic lawmaker, as well as deep Democratic dissatisfaction with Trump, will propel him to victory in November.

The debate – the first of at least two – was taped earlier Monday and is set to air in both English and Spanish at 7 p.m. EDT.

Keep up with The Hill’s coverage of the first Florida Senate debate here.

A bitter debate ends bitterly

8:05 p.m.

Nelson ripped Scott in his closing statement, casting the governor as a foil for his brand of politics. 

“I want to protect the environment. He has savaged it and everybody knows it. I want to expand health care. He not only wants to limit it, not expand it, but kill it,” Nelson said.

Both Nelson and Scott then delivered closing remarks in heavily accented Spanish.

Scott portrays Nelson as ineffective

8:02 p.m.

During the course of the debate, Scott regularly portrayed Nelson as an ineffective senator.

“My opponent has 40 years and done almost nothing on immigration,” Scott said early on.

He repeated the accusation while discussing guns and Puerto Rico.

“Sen. Nelson has been there for decades. When does he take responsibility?” Scott asked.

The theme of older leaders stepping aside to make room for younger ones has come up frequently in midterm campaigns around the country this year.

Nelson, Scott back party lines on Kavanaugh

7:56 p.m.

The candidates stuck to their respective party lines on the question of whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh should be confirmed to the Supreme Court.

“The testimony of Ford was quite compelling. In fact, it was real,” Nelson said of Christine Blasey Ford, who testified last week that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her.

“The judge in his response, there was just not the temperament that is needed of what you want to put someone on the highest court in the land,” he added, referencing Kavanaugh’s emotional testimony the same day.

Scott said he would support Kavanaugh based on his record, but was careful not to dismiss Ford’s testimony.

“Both their testimonies were convincing,” he said, adding that the two were “just pawns in some political game.”

He also derided the process.

“The way the U.S. Senate handled this, it’s a circus. It’s more like the Jerry Springer show.”

Nelson accuses Scott of lying

7:55 p.m.

Nelson regularly accused Scott of being dishonest during their debate.

“The governor keeps coming out with one whopper after another. Apparently you never got your mouth washed out with soap after telling a lie,” Nelson said at one point.

In a discussion about Cuba, the incumbent senator returned to the theme.

“My opponent is saying all these things. Bottom line is this election about integrity and trust. And governor, there is no confusion about that,” he said.

He also complained about the veracity of Scott’s campaign ads.

“Whatever he says is simply not true,” he said. “The technique that my opponent uses is that he tries to distract,” he added.

Election meddling in the spotlight

7:45 p.m.

Scott resurfaced controversial comments made by Nelson earlier this year in which the Democratic senator suggested that Russian hackers had breached election systems throughout Florida.

“So instead of coming out and saying ‘I didn’t mean to say that, I was wrong,’ he just stopped talking,” Scott said. “I don’t know what his plan was. Do you want to make people uncomfortable?”

Nelson accused Scott of trying to district voters from the issue and using “cheap political tricks.”

“The governor continues to bring up issues to try to deflect from his record,” he said. “He brings up things to use as a cheap, political tricks to get people off from looking at his record.”

Scott, Nelson agree on one thing: Trump’s record on Puerto Rico

7:38 p.m.

Both Scott and Nelson distanced themselves from President Trump’s handling of the response in Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from Hurricane Maria last year.

“I’m distancing myself from the president because the president has treated the citizens of Puerto Rico as second-class citizens,” said Nelson, touting an endorsement from Puerto Rico’s governor.

Scott said he had been to the island eight times, and listed a slew of ways he moved to help the U.S. territory, including sending National Guard and highway patrol and opening education opportunities in Florida for Puerto Ricans who fled the island.

Asked if he was pandering to Puerto Ricans in distancing himself from Trump, Scott replied: “I don’t think about politics that way. I think about ‘how do you help families.'”

Latin America enters the spotlight

7:37 p.m.

Scott used the crisis in Venezuela as a jumping-off point to attack Nelson, saying that by supporting former President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba he had empowered strongmen in Venezuela and elsewhere.

“If you go back to the problems of Venezuela, it’s caused because my opponent and Barack Obama did the wrong thing in Cuba,” Scott said, blaming the unrest in parts of Latin America on the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his brother Raul.

Both Nelson and Scott said they want Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Venezuelans fleeing their country amid a worsening economic and political crisis. 

Nelson brings father of Parkland shooting victim to debate

7:29 p.m.

Nelson opened his comments on gun control with an emotional appeal, pointing to the attendance of Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed during the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting in February.

Guttenberg has endorsed Nelson, who said he wanted to get assault rifles off the street and strengthen background checks.

Nelson portrayed Scott as a shill for the National Rifle Association (NRA).

“He has passed more NRA-backed legislation than any other governor in the history of this state. I hope, governor, that you will look Fred Guttenberg in the face and tell him that you are not going to support those policies that you have with the NRA,” Nelson said.

Scott responded that he supports the bill of rights, including the Second Amendment, and said he acted to fortify schools in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting this year.

“Sen. Nelson wants to take away certain guns from law-abiding citizens,” he said.

The Republican governor also insinuated that some sort of cultural shift was behind an uptick in violence.

“Why do young men in this country not value life like they did when I was growing up?” he asked.

Nelson tears into Scott over health care record

7:23 p.m.

Nelson blasted Scott for failing to expand Medicaid in Florida under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), hitting him for instead wanting to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

“Florida has more on the ACA than anybody else,” Nelson said. “Almost 2 million people that have health care that never had health care before. And for seven years of the law, my opponent has wanted to kill it.”

Scott insisted that he wants to protect people with pre-existing medical conditions. But he also called ObamaCare a “lemon law,” saying that it should have been repealed immediately.

“What they said it was going to do, it didn’t do it,” Scott said.

Candidates spar on immigration

7:10 p.m.

Nelson and Scott kicked off their debate with a bitter exchange over immigration. 

Nelson opened with a call for comprehensive immigration reform, touting his vote for a 2013 bipartisan Senate measure that was never taken up by the House. 

“You see children that are being taken away from their families at the border, which by the way, my opponent was silent on,” Nelson said. “You see a situation where people are here constantly living in the shadows and what we should do is we should have a comprehensive immigration law.”

Scott, after brief opening remarks in Spanish, responded by accusing Nelson of failing to take action on immigration over a 40-year career in politics and government. He said that Congress must work to secure U.S. borders and crack down on sanctuary cities, while protecting beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. 

“My opponent has had 40 years to do something on immigration and he has absolutely done nothing,” Scott said.

Scott and Nelson trade barbs with first debate set to air

6:57 p.m.

Scott and Nelson went after each other on social media on Tuesday, before their pre-taped debate was set to air in the state.

Scott, who has hit the Democratic incumbent as a career politician without a meaningful record to show, sought to frame the debate as evidence of his claim while going after Nelson in a series of tweets.

Nelson, meanwhile, went after Scott over the algae crisis in the state. The Democrat has sought to cast his GOP challenger as a liar who has tried to flee from his own record as a health care executive and governor.

Tuesday’s debate was held at the Telemundo 51 in Miramar and is being aired in Florida by the channel in Spanish. Some NBC stations will be webcasting the debate. 

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