If you’ve watched television at all in recent months, you’ve undoubtedly become aware that:
a) There’s an election in November.
b) That Gov. Rick Scott is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
c) That Rick Scott and Bill Nelson don’t like each other much.
Some $34 million has been spent by both candidates thus far. Claims and counter-claims come at voters almost every day. The latest: Scott has doubled down on his comment Wednesday that Nelson is a socialist.
What’s perhaps obstructed by the fog of the campaign season is how the animosity goes back years, at least to Scott’s first year as governor in 2011.
At a stop in DeLand this week, Nelson was asked to describe his working relationship — the senator and the governor, presumably bridging the federal and state governments — with Scott.
“It’s been strained,” Nelson said. “It started off strained when he refused to take $2.4 billion for high-speed rail (in 2011), and we would have been the showcase for the nation.
“That would have been built within a few years long ago, and now he’s saying he wants high–speed rail, but it’s not high-speed rail,” Nelson said. “High-speed rail is what was proposed down the middle of I-4, 80 miles an hour.”
At the time, Scott called the project “a boondoggle,” “irresponsible” and “a risk.”
Nelson and Scott had what one governor’s spokesman described as “a cordial conversation” about an effort to revive the project as both attended the Daytona 500 that year, but, ultimately, the federal money was broken into 22 different projects in other states.
Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, said the high-speed rail decision was the start of a rocky relationship, but in politics, decisions are made every day and winners and losers have to work together once again the next day.
“You would still expect political figures to do what’s best for their state and cooperate on future political endeavors,” Paulson said. “Both (Nelson and Scott) have a right to their own opinions. ... But this has become much more exaggerated because these two individuals are running for the same seat.”
In 2013, Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times he was “frustrated” with extremists bogging down progress in Washington, and speculation centered on him taking a run at Scott in the gubernatorial election the following year, though that didn’t materialize.
Just months after his second term as governor began in 2015, reports surfaced that Scott was eying Nelson’s seat in 2018, even hiring consultants to help his approval ratings.
Also in 2015, Nelson took a shot at Scott when the governor traveled to Washington to meet with the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary seeking more than $2 billion for a Florida hospital program.
The state’s shortfall stemmed from a change in funding designed to encourage states to expand Medicaid, a move Scott was loath to make because of his aversion to the Affordable Care Act.
“Florida is not a corporation, it is a community, and Gov. Scott should govern accordingly,” Nelson told the Miami Herald. “Right now he’s showing a callous disregard for the needs of many of his fellow Floridians.”
Susan MacManus, a political science professor emeritus from the University of South Florida, identified two primary reasons for the clash between Nelson and Scott.
It’s an era of political polarization, where Democrats and Republicans are more likely to toe the party line, she said. Also, Scott and Nelson reflect different backgrounds and approaches to solving problems.
“One is from the private sector and the other is more public-sector driven,” MacManus said. “It often tracks back to their different experiences. ... I think that’s one of the biggest divides.”
Attack ads, labels
Nelson has long been considered a moderate Democrat, one with a history of working with both sides. Party independence is an approach he endorses in his ads.
But the Scott campaign has attacked that, circulating a chart showing Nelson’s votes have grown increasingly partisan over the years. Where he voted with Democrats 49 percent of the time in the 1970s, it’s 91 percent in this decade. Politifact broke down Nelson’s voting history, referencing several studies of it, and determined Nelson remains among the most conservative Democrats, but it notes the effects of polarization on votes and calls a Democratic-leaning PAC’s response that Nelson is “one of America’s most independent senators” only half-true.
On Thursday, the Scott campaign returned to linking Nelson with the S-word: socialist.
“Bill Nelson and his campaign are desperately trying to pretend he’s a moderate. Maybe he was once. But the longer Bill Nelson has been in Washington, the more liberal he’s become,” said Chris Hartline, a Scott campaign spokesman. “As liberals around the country embrace the socialist platform, the question becomes: Is Bill Nelson a socialist or just really, really liberal? Answer: What’s the difference?”
Ryan Brown, Nelson’s spokesman, responded, saying: “Rick Scott calling one of the nation’s most moderate and independent senators a ‘socialist’ is a clear sign that he is getting desperate, and that his campaign is coming off the rails. Such a baseless claim is ridiculous but it’s what we’ve come to expect from Rick Scott who just makes things up.”
In speeches and ads, Scott has hammered away at Nelson, comparing him to an old Ford Pinto, blaming the state’s toxic algae crisis on him and claiming Nelson has voted to raise taxes more than 300 times.
“This election offers voters the starkest choice possible in the direction and the future of our state,” Scott said at a Sept. 6 luncheon with Vice President Mike Pence in Orlando. “The Democrat ticket of Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum offers a very clear, very radical and very liberal and very risky direction for our state and our country.”
But Nelson — whose initial ad campaigns reflected his views on public service — has responded with attacks on Scott for his financial fortunes while serving as governor and his role in the state’s environmental problems.
In DeLand, Nelson said of Scott: “He’s very partisan. He savaged education. He has systematically dismantled the environmental agencies. He completely eliminated growth management, the Department of Community Affairs. He has constantly battled to prevent the passage of the Affordable Care Act and then for seven years he tried to kill it, to repeal it ... wherever you turn ... you’ve seen the algae crisis. This is a direct result of starving money from those regulatory environmental agencies.”
The race is universally considered close. A Florida Atlantic University poll last weekend of 850 registered voters who said they were more likely to vote than not showed Scott and Nelson at 42 and 41 percent, respectively, a statistical tie with 11 percent of voters undecided.
Other polls in recent weeks show similar results, with Scott ahead by a point or two or tied in most.
“Florida is a cutthroat state and it’s so polarized,” MacManus said. “It looks like we’re headed toward another 1-percent election season. That’s just the way Florida is right now.”