Setting the stage for what’s certain to be an expensive and explosive political battle that could decide control of the U.S. Senate, Republican Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that he will challenge Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent.
Both parties are likely to spend tens of millions of dollars, as Republicans seek to hold or expand their one-seat margin in the Senate and Democrats seek to take control of the chamber.
“We have to all acknowledge that Washington is a disaster. It’s dysfunctional. There is a lot of old, tired thinking up there,” Scott said at a rally in Orlando, Fla., on Monday. “This concept of career politicians has got to stop. We have to have term limits on Congress.”
Scott, 65, is a former hospital executive who became governor in 2010 with the help of $60.4 million of his own money, upsetting the GOP establishment along the way. His fundraising prowess, along with his personal wealth — if he needs to use it — sets up Nelson with a fierce challenge for reelection.
His announcement was a preview of expected attacks against Nelson, a three-term incumbent who previously served in the U.S. House, the state Legislature and in Cabinet-level elected positions in state government during a career that spans more than four decades.
But Nelson, 75, seemed unfazed by Scott’s candidacy.
“I’ve always run every race like there’s no tomorrow — regardless of my opponent,” Nelson said in a statement. “While it’s clear that Rick Scott will say or do anything to get elected, I’ve always believed that if you just do the right thing, the politics will take care of itself.”
Scott’s candidacy was immediately bashed by several Democrats and progressive groups.
“Just like the rest of the Tallahassee establishment, Rick Scott is only looking out for himself — that’s why he gave tax breaks to wealthy and powerful millionaires like himself while slashing education spending and refusing federal help for hundreds of thousands of Floridians without health insurance,” said Chris King, a Democratic candidate for governor.
Scott’s support for President Trump will be a major factor in the race. Even so, Scott has taken several moderate positions at odds with Trump, such as signing a bill with gun control provisions and supporting an extension to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the program for immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children that Trump ended last month.
But Scott’s position on gun control is viewed skeptically by Democrats, who note he did not embrace such action after the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando in the same way he did after the mass shooting at a Parkland high school in February.
“[Scott] used the Pulse tragedy as a political prop while shamelessly touting an A+ rating from the NRA,’’ said Anna Eskamani, a Democratic candidate for an Orlando-area state House seat. “[Scott] wholeheartedly supports President Trump’s anti-women, anti-immigrant and anti-equality agenda.”
Attack ads began hitting the internet as soon as Scott made his announcement.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee unleashed a pair of Facebook ads slamming Scott and highlighting the $1.7 billion fine paid by HCA, the hospital company he led, for Medicare fraud in the 1990s.
Republicans responded with a website, nomorenelson.org, paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, casting Nelson as a do-nothing career politician. The National Republican Senate Committee followed with an ad bashing all Democrats, including Nelson, for voting against the tax-cut bill last year.
Scott echoed some of those criticisms, although he did not mention Nelson by name.
“We need to shake up Washington,” he told supporters. “Let’s stop sending talkers to Washington; let’s send some doers to Washington.”
Rohrer and Lemongello write for the Orlando Sentinel.