Having had their electoral lunch unexpectedly eaten in November, Democrats across the nation are in more disarray than Bob Dylan’s hair, with factions riding off in different directions. There are all manner of sub-sets and niche gripes, as you would expect in an outfit as big as the Democrat Party. But the main demarcation organizes around a split between the full-goose bozo Sandersista ideologues and the let’s-just-win-and-keep-power branch that occasionally makes limited concessions to reality. A recent example of this in Florida is the noises made by some ambitious Democrats, with the backing of some party activists, that they will offer primary opposition to incumbent Democrat U.S. Senator Bill Nelson in 2018.
This one takes a little probing to understand. After all, Bill Nelson is the only Democrat to hold a statewide office in Florida. Purple Florida is a toss-up state. But the governor, the entire state cabinet, and the other U.S. Senator are all Republicans. The bland and inoffensive Nelson has maneuvered this environment well. He has held elected office in Florida since 1978, when he won a seat in the U.S. House from the Orlando area. After 12 years in the House and a half dozen as Florida’s Insurance Commissioner, Nelson won an open seat in the U.S. Senate in 2000 when Connie Mack retired. Nelson won reelection to the seat with 60 percent of the vote in 2006 and in 2012 with 55 percent of the vote, though in neither cycle against a really first-rate Republican.
Nelson is often described in the press, and by voters who follow these things, as a “moderate.” But this label is more on the basis of style than voting record. Nelson is mild-mannered, not a flamethrower or ideological loudmouth. He has a good-ole-boy drawl and he doesn’t wear Che Guevara sweatshirts on the Senate Floor. But a quick check with those ideological rating agencies that score voting records shows that in most of his many years in the Senate, Nelson has had a more liberal voting record that the average Democrat Senator. For example, in the National Journal’s ranking of Senate votes in 2013, Nelson has a more liberal voting record than either Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. The American Conservative Union gives Nelson’s voting record a lifetime conservative score of 28.4, while Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s lifetime conservative score is 97.2. Some moderate. Drawl or no, Nelson has been a reliable vote for the left for a long time.
Loyal leftist or no, Nelson has gotten a lot of votes from moderate Republicans and independents. And these folks will make up a bigger fraction of the election in “off-year” 2018 than they would in a presidential year. So what gives? The Democrats have 23 Senate seats to defend in 2018 (not to mention those of the “independent” Bernie Sanders and Maine’s junior senator Angus King), the Republicans only 10. So why give the push to a proven winner with statewide name recognition who has always been a reliable vote for the Democrats’ agenda?
In order to answer this I pestered some party activists and consultants, who talked on condition that I not use their names. What I learned was there is indeed a feeling among some Florida Democrats that Nelson would be vulnerable in 2018 against his likely opponent (likely for now), current Florida Governor Rick Scott, whose final term expires in 2018. Nelson, one summed it up, “just doesn’t look fresh — he doesn’t appeal to young Democrats.”
Sounds like judging a politician by standards more applicable to fruit or pastry. But perhaps it makes sense. Nelson will be 76 in 2018, and would be 80 when the 2018 Senate term expires. Hardly in the first bloom of youth. But Senators in their eighties are not uncommon. John McCain is 80, and appears as ornery and disputatious as he was when he was 60. When one sees Nelson on the tube or in person, he does not appear like a man who will soon be ordering a walker and an ear-trumpet. And while Scott is a decade younger than Nelson, the Fountain of Youth contingent might consider him also somewhat less than daisy fresh, as much of a Mustache Pete as Nelson.
Recent political history favors “outsiders,” so there is time for someone in this category to pop up and take the Republican senatorial nomination. But if the Rs put up Scott, the Democrats may well be overestimating Scott’s political power. Scott’s record as governor holds appeal for conservatives, but he’s a weak campaigner, tentative and inarticulate on the stump. And his electoral record is less than impressive. Scott was a successful businessman and political rookie when he narrowly beat Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink for the governor’s office in 2010. In 2014 Scott won re-election to the governor’s job by beating Charlie Crist (yes, that Charlie Crist) by one point. Scott currently doesn’t poll as well as Nelson does. We’re not talking a political powerhouse here.
Democrats are impressed by how much campaign cash Scott would be able to raise for the 2018 race. But they may be overestimating the importance of this. If you’re not the political flavor of the month, even if you have a solid record as a former Florida governor, money may avail you little. I call the jury’s attention to Jeb! Bush’s operatically unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2016, when he collected and spent an amount equal to roughly half the national debt and got nothing for it.
A more important factor may be how popular Donald Trump is in the fall of 2018. A popular Trump would raise the proposed of all Rs, and Scott was one of Trump’s early supporters.
The ambitious Democrats saying they might take on Nelson include Nova Southeastern University law professor Tim Canova, who, with Bernie Sanders’ endorsement, ran against South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the 2016 primary and lost. Former U.S. Senate candidate Pam Keith and Orlando State Senator Randolph Bracy also say they have been urged to run by others and are considering.
Democrat would-be challengers natter on about the “next generation of leadership.” Florida Republicans find comfort in the prospect that if a proven Democrat walks the plank in favor of a challenger who is barely known outside of his (her) zip code, or even gets beat up in a primary battle, the next generation of leadership in the U.S. Senate will likely be Republican times two.
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