Will Rick Scott Challenge Senator Bill Nelson In 2018?

May 3, 2017

While the 2018 campaign for the U.S. Senate has not begun officially, it is clearly underway.

November 6, 2018 is still 18 months away but incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and Gov. Rick Scott, the presumptive Republican challenger, are already gearing up.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, visiting Pensacola City Hall in August, 2016.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

“Most people think that’s going to be the race; we don’t know if someone else is going to enter. But it will be a very expensive, highly competitive race,” says Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.

She says the matchup would attract not only the attention of Floridians, but party members from across the country.

“Because the Senate is more likely to flip back Democrat than is the House,” McManus says. “So I’m sure there will be a lot of money put in from outside the state into the Nelson race.”

The same probably can be said for the Republicans from around the country feeding Scott’s bank account. Without question, says McManus, this will be a multi-million dollar race.

How much? Stay tuned.

“Very crowded airwaves next year,” said McManus. “Television costs money, it swings last-minute voters particularly. So, the sky’s the limit on this race.”

Campaign finance records show Nelson raising more than two million dollars for the first three months of the year, with about $3.5 million in the bank. Scott’s political committee “Let’s Get to Work” raised and spent more than two million dollars as of last November, the latest available figures.

“In Florida, the third-largest state, I take nothing for granted,” said Nelson. “I always run scared as a jackrabbit, like I’m behind. And I will continue to do so.”

Nelson – who’s 74 -- is the lone Democrat holding statewide office in Florida. He’s won three Senate races, but analysts say none of his previous opponents compare to Scott’s name recognition and fundraising ability.

Gov. Rick Scott visiting Apple Market in Pensacola in June, 2015.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

After winning two close elections for governor, 64-year-old Rick Scott is termed out in 2018. He said late last year that running for Nelson’s seat in Washington is “an option.”  And he appears ready to bring the same mantra to the Senate race, as he did in his bids for governor.

“The most important thing for me is how do I help families get a job,” said Scott. “And everything I’m doing to try to build relationships with the Trump administration is to make sure we get more jobs for Florida families.”

For Scott, one wildcard is whether an endorsement from President Trump – a close friend and political ally – would help or hinder. Susan McManus at USF says that could come down to Floridians’ attitudes concerning Trump in about a year from now.

“It’s no secret that Democrats are planning to run with an anti-Trump message,” McManus said. “It’s probably going to be a very important factor.”

Common threads between Nelson and Scott are that both are experienced politicians, they’ve won election—and re-election – to statewide office in Florida. They know the state well, and they know that every vote counts.

“They’re well aware of the fact that the last four elections in Florida have been decided by just a one percent margin, including the last two governor’s races and the last presidential race,” said McManus.

With Donald Trump’s White House victory last fall, coupled with the GOP takeover of both the House and Senate, one Republican close to Rick Scott tells Politico.com that, while running for the Senate had been appealing to the Governor before -- now it’s even more so.