Bill Nelson for Governor? Impact on Charlie Crist, progressives and whether a run is wise.

Florida is alive with speculation that 71-year-old US Senator Bill Nelson who has been very critical of Rick Scott will jump into the Governor’s Race thus potentially saving the Democrats from a messy primary process and/or the possible nomination of former Governor Charlie Crist. 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. The chatter is very similar to the talk around Bob Graham in 1998 or 2002 possibly coming home to run against Jeb Bush for Governor. As we know, in both cases Graham opted to stay in Washington fighting for our state and values. Nelson, however is a more politicized and somewhat less constituent oriented Senator than Graham was, thus a decision to ditch the Senate and run for Governor may be easier for him to make.

Former Governor Charlie Crist announced his candidacy less than two weeks ago and while he is a clear front-runner to nab the nomination he has been dogged by potential political and ethical baggage. The reality is that many Democrats are concerned about a potential Crist run for Governor and the talk about Nelson continuing after the Crist announcement is reflective of this. Apprehension about Crist appears to  be less due to his past political positions which may irritate progressives like me but do not seem to bother party leaders or paid political consultants. It is more down to the fact that the enormous baggage Crist carries from the past including his poor record of job creation, multiple flip-flops on issues and potential ethical pitfalls have some party regulars worried.

Despite these qualms about Crist and the failure of the preferred progressive candidate Nan Rich to make much of an impact thus far on public polls, Nelson should skip this race. As a siting US Senator who was just reelected from a large state in the majority party, Nelson is in a position of prominence in the state and in his party. As the most prominent Democrat in the state, Nelson has the bully pulpit to push any pet issue he likes. A Nelson candidacy would be in my eyes a setback for the party. It would further indicate desperation to win at all costs, and the perception of recycling the state’s only statewide elected Democrat to run for Governor furthers the notion that the party has neglected infrastructure building and developing a bench of candidates. The mere fact Charlie Crist who four years ago was the Republican Governor and a self-proclaimed conservative is the current Democratic gubernatorial front runner speaks volumes about the party.

But should Nelson run he would likely push a strongly progressive agenda and harken back to the Askew/Graham/Chiles/MacKay leadership school of thought. Charlie Crist may want to embrace that legacy but his own history may preclude him from doing so. Still Crist’s early signals indicate he wants to leave very little room on the left at least rhetorically for any other Democrat.  Though, I seriously doubt Nelson would enter the race for Governor without making a deal of some sort to get Crist out thus ensuring the two do not face off in a heated primary.

Nelson is far from my favorite Democrat. As a high school student in 1990, I campaigned tirelessly against Nelson for Lawton Chiles and Buddy MacKay in the Democratic Primary for Governor. In 1994, I voted for Karen Gievers in the primary for Insurance Commissioner (Nelson went on to win a close shave win over Republican Rep. Tim Ireland in the fall) and in 2000 I was hopeful that Nelson would be seriously challenged in the US Senate primary by a more liberal candidate. We’ve spent plenty of time in recent weeks on this site dissecting Crist’s record, something we promise to continue doing. But Nelson, who while not a progressive is not a Charlie Crist styled conservative either. In fact, while his demeanor may be grating on many and his history is one of a moderately conservative Democrat, in recent years he’s been ahead the curve on some issue which may surprise progressives.

Florida has undergone a metamorphosis politically since the mid-1990s. Republicans, most of whom have little reverence, knowledge or curiosity about the state’s history has taken charge dominating all levels of state government and influencing national elections as well. During this period of time the GOP has developed a lock step mentality which has put ideology over competence and the interest of the national party above those of the state. This is in direct contrast to the Democrats who ran the state in the 1970s and early 1980s in many cases with Republican assistance and in-spite of some very politically motivated resistance within the Democratic Party.

Bill Nelson is not an Askew Democrat. I certainly wish he was, but he is the last link we have with an era of competence, and problem solving – An era when growing Florida in a responsible and progressive manner was stressed and a long term view of sustainability was promoted. As a Senator, Nelson has accumulated a left of center voting record which included critical support for the Affordable Health Care Act (despite opinion polls that showed it as unpopular in the state) and support for President Obama’s economic initiatives which prevented us from plunging into depression. Nelson has voted consistently on important environmental issues including opposition to offshore drilling and funding Everglades restoration. He has also been a fairly reliable supporter of gun control legislation going back to his time on State Cabinet.  While on some issues he strayed from the party during the Bush years, by and large he was a far more reliable D vote than other southern Democratic Senators he served with during the Bush Presidency.

Bill Nelson is not Reubin Askew, Bob Graham or Buddy MacKay. But he is closer to them then he is to Charlie Crist or to Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Thrasher, Tom Feeney and any number of other recent Republicans who have shown little care or regard for the history or needs of this state. Nelson has placed in many cases the needs of Florida’s fragile ecosystem over short term commercial concerns. Senator Nelson was one of just two members of Florida’s Congressional Delegation to receive 100% score from the League of Conservation voters in the first session of the 112th Congress (Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was the other). Nelson has stood strongly on protecting Florida’s water supply and preventing offshore drilling, as well as drilling on federal lands within Florida.  As time has moved on he has moved to the left on every practical issue that effects the quality of life for Floridians, and has become a reliable partisan vote on almost every hot-button issue of the day.

Senator Nelson understands Florida, and while he’s not perfect he’s much better versed than just about anyone  to what this state once was and could be once again. Nelson represents a throwback of sorts to better days in Florida and while he would not be my favored candidate for Governor necessarily were he to run, he would be a better option for progressives and people who care about the state than either Charlie Crist or Rick Scott. While he’s far from my first choice for Governor he probably does bridge the party divide Crist’s candidacy is creating.

Nelson’s own history of statewide races does give me pause about him challenging Rick Scott, however. Unlike Charlie Crist who has repeatedly defied the odds and won high-profile contests, Nelson seems to have been more often than not the beneficiary of good fortune.  Nelson faced weak GOP opposition in each of his three US Senate races and was fortunate to be elected Insurance Commissioner in 1994. 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.

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 have previously noted on this site, mid-term wave 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 January that 2014 will not be a Republican wave year, he will have a pretty good idea a few months later, 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 As Crist has already demonstrated. While it is obvious Nelson, Crist, nor any other Democrat will be able to match Rick Scott dollar for dollar, Senator Nelson does not need as much of a runway to set up a successful fundraising operation.

Nelson could drag this decision making out for a full six months if he wanted to leaving Crist to twist in the wind. If he drags out the decision that long it may not benefit the Democrats as a party thus he will be under substantial 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.

Eventually though, I think it would be wise for Nelson to skip the race and stay in the Senate. This Governor’s race will be hyper-competitive regardless of what polling data currently tells us, and Nelson cannot afford to cough up his political legacy in this race. Additionally, while I am not a Crist fan per se, it sends a very bad signal to other potential party crossers if he was lead on for months that he’d have much of the institutional support of the party only to have the party’s most senior official turn around and run for the same office.

It would be important should Nelson jump in 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.

The President’s poll numbers continue to plummet and in the long run that might be the determining factor whether Crist, Rich, Nelson or any other Democrat can knock off Rick Scott next November.

One comment

  1. I doubt very seriously Nelson will run. Harry Reid would be none too happy that is for sure. All we need is a lame duck Rick Scott making an 11th hour senate appointment. I concur with much of what you said about Nelson. I’m somewhat ambivilant about him. He is no Bob Graham or Lawton Chiles. Some of my feelings harken back to 89/90 when I was a strong George Stuart supporter in the guv race (ah, what might have been). I also voted for Gievers in 94. Don’t be too hard on Crist for comments made four years ago. Check and see what Sens. Richard Shelby & Ben Nighthorse Campbell were saying in their 1992 campaigns, two or three years before they switched. Campbell, in particular, had a tough Dem primary that year.

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