There’s a massive political storm coming to Florida in 2018, and Democrats should be worried. It’s not officially a named storm yet – in that Florida Governor Rick Scott hasn’t officially announced he’s running for Senate – but political insiders and consultants are nevertheless forecasting a torrential downpour of attack ads and tidal waves of campaign mailers. It will be a Category 5 political storm, the likes of which Democrats and their political allies can’t prepare for, let alone compete with.
“Hurricane Scott” is expected to flood the airwaves, mailboxes, and social media of Florida voters in unprecedented and unimaginable ways, and this highly organized storm is bearing down on one man: U.S. Senator Bill Nelson.
Few matchups in the 2018 election cycle – anywhere in the country – will be as closely watched as the brewing contest between the incumbent Democrat Nelson and outgoing Republican Governor Scott. Florida’s sheer size, coupled with its precarious balance of voter registrations, means elections in the Sunshine State are a microcosm of the national mood, thus, by default, the epicenter of national media attention.
But the outcome of Nelson vs. Scott also has implications for the balance of power in the Senate, where the Democrats must defend 23 seats, with only 9 at risk for the GOP. And regardless of which side picks up seats, national media pundits will undoubtedly view the Florida result as a bellwether for the 2020 presidential election cycle and a referendum on President Donald Trump.
The volume of campaign cash expected to rain down on Florida television stations, in mailboxes, on digital ad buys, and on manpower to mobilize armies of volunteers – vast sums of money that will easily rival a presidential contest – will likely determine the outcome, and by that measure, Nelson is in deep, deep trouble.
Simply put, The incumbent Nelson probably has no inkling what he’s in for. He just doesn’t campaign often enough, and the game has changed so radically in the past six years, that he’s got a lot of catching up to do.
Almost certainly, he’ll use this story as a fundraising ploy, and for that, we can’t blame him. But whatever money he raises from this plea for help will need to dwarf previous hauls. That’s because, in his seemingly endless political career, he’s never faced the onslaught headed his way. At some point, his Democratic allies will have to decide if the amount of money necessary to protect his seat is actually worth the investment.
First elected to public office in 1972, Nelson is the ultimate career politician. He’s lingered on the public payroll for more than 40 years. Like a piece of gum clinging to Florida’s shoe, voters can’t find a way to scrape him off. He’s held office through sixteen political campaigns.
Over that span, the toughest race Nelson has ever experienced was his 2000 contest against Congressman Bill McCollum. And although the $6 million race was nasty and tight, Nelson prevailed by almost five points, despite the historically close presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore that same year.
Despite his longevity at the ballot box, Nelson’s seventeenth campaign will be a radical departure from previous contests. He’s never faced the kind of financial onslaught that Rick Scott and his veteran campaign team will bring to bear. Over the entire course of Nelson’s senate career, he’s spent a grand total $40 million on three races. That includes just over $6 million in the 2000 race against McCollum, and $17 million apiece in the 2006 contest against Katherine Harris, and the 2012 race against Connie Mack IV. None were close, the last two races were total blowouts.
But Nelson’s campaign expenditures pale in comparison to the cavalcade of campaign spending by Rick Scott, who, between his personal expenditures and the electioneering organizations supporting him, dropped an estimated $100 million in his 2014 re-election campaign. That’s 60 million dollars more than Bill Nelson has spent in all three of his Senate races combined. The difference is staggering, and the sheer administration of minimizing waste and maximizing return on investment for a $100 million campaign is one of Rick Scott’s strengths.
Is Nelson up to the task?
Democrats may be banking on the idea that they won’t need that much money to compete. But it didn’t work for Charlie Crist, who “only” raised and spent $50 million in his losing effort to unseat Scott in 2014. Nelson will have to pick up the pace just to match Crist’s spending. Since his last race in 2012, he’s accumulated just under $11 million in his campaign coffers, so he’s going to need a massive infusion of hard and soft dollars over the next year if he hopes to compete with Scott. Undoubtedly, more money will flow, but how much, and how soon?
Worse for Nelson, if he’s counting on help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, it probably won’t be much. The group, which targets races across the country, at last report had just $7.7 million cash on hand. Democrats have to decide where to invest those dollars to defend 23 incumbents across the country next year. So aside from Rick Scott’s own spending, the other obstacle Nelson must overcome is countering the perception that defending his seat is worth the investment.
Pumping $25 million into Florida just to save a single senator’s seat may be seen as a fools errand by the Democratic financiers and political pollsters in Washington D.C., when those same dollars might easily mean the difference between victory and defeat in nearly two dozen other winnable races. Why bet much money on one senate seat when those same dollars can be used to protect a handful of Democratic Senators in smaller states?
While some Democrats currently take solace in recent polling that shows Nelson leading Scott 44-38, those numbers don’t mean much. If anything, they should be terrified, since Nelson has never been hit with a significant quantity of negative campaign ads, a truly blistering direct mail campaign, or tens of millions in radio and digital ads defining his liberal record. Anyone on his campaign staff who think it’ll be just like his other races don’t understand the sheer scale of what Nelson is about to experience. He’s enjoyed years of glowing press coverage and senatorial photo ops, but a creative, blistering multimedia attack campaign can quickly turn a photo-op space shuttle ride into a career-ending congressional junket, where support can fall away faster than a pair of spent booster rockets.
Scott, by comparison, is a battered and bloodied campaign warrior. He’s been exposed to so many attacks in both of his previous races, he’s built up immunity to them. Any attacks by Nelson and his surrogates will have to be new, or they won’t have nearly the effect Nelson’s team hopes. And the attacks he’s faced are two years fresher in the minds of voters than anything negative said about Nelson in his last race. Scott’s opponents in both 2010 and 2014 collectively spent far more driving up his negatives, and his name has been dragged through more mud over the past eight years than Nelson has faced over his four decades of public life.
Yet despite of those differences, the race between the men is within the margin of error, before Scott has spent a single dollar.
Another Scott advantage is that he’s methodical as a fundraiser, and his financial backers donate with a level of confidence that is backstopped by his ability and proven willingness to underwrite his own campaign. Earlier this month, he announced the formation of the New Republican political action committee, which allows him to raise federal campaign money, and equally as important, spend it. With a street-legal federal PAC, Scott can and will start gathering the data points he needs in order to undercut Nelson’s strengths and exacerbate his weaknesses.
If Scott follows the same model he’s always used, his team, led by Melissa (Sellers) Stone and Curt Anderson from OnMessage, Inc., has already gathered troves of opposition research, with plans to enhance that information through extensive focus groups and polling data. When those tasks are complete, Scott and his team will build out a step-by-step strategic campaign plan that will maximize the effectiveness of every dollar Scott spends.
In cruising to easy victories in 2000, 2006 and 2012, Nelson’s team simply cannot be as sharp as Scott’s own, and they almost certainly can’t fully appreciate what they’re up against. But they’ve seen the forecasted hurricane coming their way. So if they’re smart, they’ll start nailing plywood over the campaign office windows any day now.