Florida is alive with speculation that 70 year-old US Senator Bill Nelson will jump into the Governor’s Race thus potentially saving the Democrats from a messy primary process and the possible nomination of former Governor Charlie Crist. Concern grows weekly that Crist’s political baggage which continues to pile up could be fatal to any hopes the Democrats have to unseat Governor Rick Scott. Nelson’s unwillingness to definitively rule out a race for Governor has fueled greater speculation in the past few weeks just as questions about Crist reach a frenzy among activists and some establishment Democrats.
Conventional wisdom holds that Nelson has to make a decision by this summer. But that is not necessarily the case and perhaps not wise given the volatility of electorate particularly in off-year elections. When ex-US Senator Lawton Chiles challenged Nelson in the 1990 Gubernatorial Primary, he jumped in very late during the Spring of 1990 and Senator George Stuart of Orlando who was the established “liberal” candidate in the race switched to run for Insurance Commissioner. Chiles decisively beat Nelson in the primary (by almost 40 points) and crushed the incumbent Republican Bob Martinez in the General. It would be important should Nelson jump that he give a soft landing to Senator Nan Rich and her supporters. As time goes on Senator Rich is attracting more and more activist/progressive support across the state and any effort to win back the Governor’s Mansion must prominently include these activists.
Rick Scott is almost certain to be a stronger GOP nominee than Martinez was, but at the same time Nelson who doesn’t like campaigning (as evidenced by his minimal public appearances during his 1998 Insurance Commissioner re-election, as well as his 2006 & 2012 US Senate re-election efforts) may be best served by a late-entry. As I noted above recent off-year elections have not been obvious wave elections until later in the cycle. In 1994, the generic ballot did not break towards the Republicans until August 1994. In 2002 it was in October 2002 and in 2010 it was in June 2010. While Nelson cannot be assured by next spring that 2014 will not be a Republican wave year, he will have a pretty good idea, as in each of the cycles that I listed above, the elements were in place for November Democratic debacles by the spring.
Additionally, Nelson will be able to raise money relatively quickly. While it is obvious he, nor any other Democrat will be able to match Rick Scott dollar for dollar, the Senator does not need as much of a runway to set up a successful fundraising operation as other possible Democratic candidates.
Plenty of other ramifications would occur if Nelson were to seek the Governorship. As Adam Smith’s excellent piece on Sunday demonstrated, plenty of positives and negatives come from a potential Nelson run. I don’t want to debate those today as much as to lay out the scenario where Nelson could drag this decision making out for a full year. If he drags out the decision that long it may not benefit the Democrats as a party thus he will be under pressure to decide sooner. However, Nelson could conceivably wait and not damage his own electoral prospects in the process. For a sitting elected official, that is a great position to be in.