Rick Scott-Bill Nelson Florida Senate race tests value of campaign cash
Money is moving at a furious clip in the race for a Florida U.S. Senate seat. Whether that clip or a furious electorate will prove decisive, however, remains unclear.
Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican whose vast personal fortune can supplement robust fundraising, spent $18 million through the end of June, helping close a consistent gap in the polls and draw even with the incumbent, Democrat Bill Nelson, in what is shaping up as the country’s marquee race.
Mr. Scott’s torrid pace of spending has some Republicans wondering why his numbers aren’t better. Some Democrats worry that Mr. Nelson’s campaign has been too flaccid.
“I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive,” said Terry Sullivan, a Republican political consultant and former top campaign aide to Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican. “The Democrats are nervous, and they should be. Bill Nelson knows he’s going to be dramatically outspent and he’s an increasingly ineffective politician. But all the intensity is on the Democrats’ side, and running as a Republican isn’t an advantage this year.”
The Nelson campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Mr. Scott’s campaign insists he has enthusiasm on his side.
“Volunteers supporting the governor’s campaign have knocked on more than 700,000 doors so far,” campaign spokesman Kerri Wyland wrote. “This excitement, combined with the governor’s record fundraising numbers, show Floridians have had enough of career politicians in Washington and that they are ready to elect a real leader with a record of results.”
The record fundraising Ms. Wyland referred to was the $22.5 million Mr. Scott has raised. After the $18 million he has spent, he still had $4.5 million in the bank as of June 30, according to fundraising records tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mr. Nelson, meanwhile, had $13.6 million on hand after spending barely more than $5 million of the $17.8 million he has raised, records show.
But Mr. Scott has massive personal resources and has shown no reluctance to tap them during his two successful gubernatorial bids. Thanks to a 56 percent boost in 2017, his net worth is estimated at more than $230 million and has become a talking point for the Nelson campaign.
Mr. Scott also has gained a reputation for running a tight, ruthlessly focused campaign, as suggested by the door-knocking figures provided by Ms. Wyland. Even Democrats are impressed by his ground game and, in particular, his ability to identify likely voters who might otherwise stay home.
“Nelson will have to depend on those good trade winds,” warned Florida Democratic consultant Steven Vanacore. “He’s going up against a very serious Rick Scott machine.”
Mr. Vanacore also noted that the traditional political cycle no longer holds in Florida and that the longer campaign benefits Mr. Scott’s flush accounts. Already, the Scott campaign and outside groups backing it Mr. Scott’s New Republican PAC has raised close to $10 million and spent more than $6 million have flooded Florida media, far outdistancing Mr. Nelson.
“An election used to be a peak event, but Scott is already like a thousand points of light. We’re only in the middle of it, and already he’s constant, he’s everywhere. I don’t think yard signs are all that important, but they are sort of the Paul Revere of elections in that they tend to crop up close to the election. But they’re all over the place in Florida already.”
Former Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a veteran on the Florida political scene, said he had “never met a harder worker” in politics than Mr. Scott.
“And that’s not just at election time, not just in the campaign,” Mr. Diaz-Balart said. “And I think come November some people are going to be surprised at how much support he has in the Hispanic community here.”
Mr. Sullivan, who acknowledged that he is not familiar with the inner workings of the Scott campaign, said such encomiums are nice but that the money edge remains significant.
“I don’t know that Scott is some master strategist or brilliant retail politician, and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t describe himself that way or want to be described that way,” Mr. Sullivan said. “But he has piles of cash and has proved he isn’t afraid to burn through them.”
Certainly, money has become increasingly important in Florida, which is home to 10 media markets, some of them among the nation’s most expensive. The increase in just the new millennium has been astonishing, according to figures tracked by OpenSecrets.org.
In 2000, the combined spending of campaigns and outside groups on a Florida Senate race just topped $16 million. In 2016, when Mr. Rubio was re-elected, combined spending approached $112 million, the figures show.
Just how effective spending by Mr. Scott or groups supportive of his bid has been remains unclear. One veteran observer of the Florida scene, however, thinks the Scott campaign has hit home with ads.
“A golden rule of politics is to brand your opponent before he brands you, and I think some of Scott’s ads have been very good at that,” said Susan MacManus, a retired political science professor widely regarded as the dean of Florida election analysts. Ms. MacManus said she has overheard laborers talking about an ad that compared Mr. Nelson’s long career he was first elected to office when President Nixon was re-elected to a Ford Pinto.
What’s more, Ms. MacManus pointed to ways in which both campaigns have been able to manipulate the media in ways that go beyond money. In Mr. Scott’s case, being governor allows him to appear at ribbon-cuttings or mall openings or other settings that highlight his emphasis on Florida’s economic resurgence, whereas in Mr. Nelson’s case the Democrats appear to have given him a prominent voice as a spokesman on various issues before Congress, a role he hasn’t consistently had in the past.
“It may be one reason the Nelson campaign seems to have been quieter is because it is following an old rule that says you go full speed after the primaries and Labor Day,” Ms. MacManus said. “But there’s no doubt the Scott campaign has been spending heavily and effectively, while with Nelson sort of confined to Washington they have tried to get him appearing in public in new ways.”
There is some evidence that Mr. Scott’s spending has had an impact. The RealClearPolitics poll average gives him a lead of less than 1 percentage point, but the trends are in his favor. Mr. Nelson led all of the major head-to-head polls earlier this year, but Mr. Scott has led in three of the past five dating back to May.
Nevertheless, all of that activity has happened with Mr. Nelson’s anticipated media buys still to come.
“Both sides have reason to be nervous,” Mr. Vanacore said. “But Rick Scott has to be a little frustrated that he’s spent at least $20 million and it’s close to status quo in the polls.”