Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has defeated Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonElon Musk mocks Biden for ignoring his company's historic space flight How will Biden's Afghanistan debacle impact NASA's Artemis return to the moon? Biden to talk Russia, anti-corruption with Ukraine's president MORE (D-Fla.) in a nationally watched Senate race that triggered two recounts and a series of bitter legal and public relations battles.
The contest came to an end on Sunday as a noon deadline passed for county election officials to submit the results of a hand recount that showed Scott leading Nelson by about 10,000 votes, or 0.12 percentage points.
The hand recount was ordered after a machine recount showed the two candidates separated by only about 12,600 votes, or 0.15 points.
Shortly after the results came in, Scott released a statement saying Nelson had called to concede.
“Things worked out a little differently than Grace and I had hoped, but let me say, I by no measure feel defeated,” Nelson said in a video statement on Sunday. “I was not victorious in this race but I still wish to strongly re-affirm the cause for which we fought: A public office is a public trust.”
Nelson acknowledged that he had been “heavily outspent” by Scott, who pumped more than $51 million of his personal fortune into his Senate bid. He also warned of a “gathering darkness in our politics.”
“My hope today can be found in the words of John F. Kennedy, who said civility can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future,” Nelson said.
The latest results cemented Scott’s victory in a hard-fought race that stretched nearly two weeks past Election Day, when he appeared to edge out Nelson by less than 1 point.
But as vote tallies continued to trickle in from heavily Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties in the days that followed, Scott’s lead narrowed considerably, putting the race within the 0.5-point threshold required to trigger a recount.
That recount touched off a round of litigation from both campaigns and ignited a bitter fight in the court of public opinion, in which Republicans raised the prospect of rampant election fraud and Democrats accused the GOP of voter suppression.
Democrats sought to use a series of federal lawsuits to challenge Florida voting laws in recent days. But those lawsuits saw only limited success in court, with a judge denying the vast majority of requests to throw out state election standards and requirements.
The machine recount drew parallels to the controversial recount in Florida in the 2000 presidential race between former President George W. Bush and Democrat Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreTrump's election fraud claims pose risks for GOP in midterms Don't 'misunderestimate' George W. Bush Why the pro-choice movement must go on the offensive MORE. That fight ended a month after Election Day when the Supreme Court halted the recount, handing the White House to Bush.
As in 2000, the recount in the race between Scott and Nelson shined a light on election officials and processes in Broward and Palm Beach, which lagged behind the rest of the state in counting their ballots.
Scott’s campaign sued the counties’ top election officials, accusing them of violating public record laws and asking courts to order law enforcement officials to impound ballots, voting machines and tabulating equipment. Other Republicans, including President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE, suggested without evidence that election fraud was pervasive in Broward and Palm Beach.
The machine recount ended last Thursday with Scott widening his lead by less than 100 votes. But the two candidates remained separated by a scant 0.15 points — under the 0.25-point margin required to trigger a hand recount under state law.
Hand recounts in Florida do not require election workers to sort through every ballot manually, but to review so-called “overvoted” and “undervoted” ballots — ballots on which voters either marked more than the maximum number of selections allowed or fewer.
The hand recount trained attention on Broward, where initial tallies showed an unusually high number of undervotes.
Nelson, his lawyers and his allies had predicted that the three-term incumbent would pick up thousands of new votes in the hand recount, pointing especially to roughly 23,000 outstanding ballots in Broward that they hoped would push Nelson across the finish line.
Marc Elias, the lead recount lawyer for Nelson, claimed for days that Nelson was likely to make sweeping gains in a hand recount. But he acknowledged last week in a call with reporters that the senator would need more than one “silver bullet” in his bid for a fourth term in Washington.
“It has never been our view that there was going to be one silver bullet that was going to change the margin in this race,” Elias told reporters in a conference call last Thursday.
“If you look at each stage where the margin has shrunk, it has not shrunk because of one big thing, but rather it has shrunk from a number of smaller things.”
The final results were not what Nelson and his supporters had hoped.
In Broward, only about 500 of the 23,000 outstanding ballots were declared valid. Nelson netted less than 300 of those, according to Scott’s campaign, which received vote tallies from a public records request.
The final hand count brought to an end one of the most expensive and closely watched Senate races of 2018 and handed Republicans a key victory in the nation’s largest and most volatile battleground state. It also expands their Senate majority for at least the next two years, giving the party a larger buffer in 2020 when they face a less favorable electoral map.
The hand recount also handed a win to Democrat Nikki Fried in the closely contested race for Florida agriculture commissioner. With Nelson’s loss, Fried will become the lone statewide elected Democrat.
Nelson’s defeat came three days after a machine recount showed Republican Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisPoll: Trump dominates 2024 Republican primary field Republican politicians: Let OSHA do its job Ben & Jerry's unveils new flavor in support of Cori Bush's public safety reform bill MORE defeating Democrat Andrew Gillum in Florida’s closely watched governor’s race. Gillum formally conceded the race on Saturday.
Both the Florida Senate race and gubernatorial contest were seen as key tests of Trump’s political brand in the Sunshine State. He edged out former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty MORE there in 2016 by roughly 1 point and the state is expected to play a crucial role in deciding whether he will win a second term in the White House in 2020.
Scott was among the first Republican governors to back the real estate mogul’s insurgent presidential bid, and Trump played a pivotal role in convincing the term-limited governor to seek Nelson’s Senate seat. The president congratulated Scott in a tweet on Sunday.
“From day one Rick Scott never wavered. He was a great Governor and will be even a greater Senator in representing the People of Florida,” Trump tweeted. “Congratulations to Rick on having waged such a courageous and successful campaign!”
From day one Rick Scott never wavered. He was a great Governor and will be even a greater Senator in representing the People of Florida. Congratulations to Rick on having waged such a courageous and successful campaign!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 18, 2018