When Sen. Claire McCaskill began to choke in a Democratic Caucus lunch in June, Sen. Bill Nelson stepped in to perform the Heimlich maneuver.
The Florida senator was unable to dislodge the food. That’s when West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin took over. He broke one of McCaskill’s ribs, but he got the job done.
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“Well, I gave her two of ’em. And it was really stuck. Joe Manchin reached over, grabbed her, did about five of these,” Nelson explained later, demonstratively acting out his attempts. “He’s taller, but he went at it really hard to the point he really picked her up.”
Now Democrats worry Nelson is the one who might need assistance.
Nelson’s quick response at a fraught moment demonstrates his bona fides as a military veteran and longtime public servant. But his struggles on the Florida campaign trail mirror his difficulties helping McCaskill. Consider: Nelson slightly trails Gov. Rick Scott, even though President Donald Trump barely carried Florida, while Manchin is leading in a state Trump won by 42 points.
Privately, a number of Democratic senators have offered their unsolicited view that Nelson is in for a reckoning on Election Day, which would cost Democrats any hope of winning back the Senate. Nelson is a classic old-school senator who keeps his head down and does his work, which is effective in the Capitol but less so in a Trump-era campaign in the most expensive battleground state. He’s being vastly outspent, and there’s concern in Florida the national party might cut him loose if a loss looks certain in the expensive Sunshine State.
And Florida Democrats fret that the low-key third-term senator has not been visible enough while Scott is seemingly everywhere.
“We have no contact with the U.S. senator until it’s an election year and that’s a problem,” said Tangela Sears, a Miami anti-violence activist and campaign surrogate for the Democratic Party’s only African-American candidate for governor, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. “I don’t need your attention when you need my vote. I need your attention to put a plan together to move my community forward.”
It’s been a month since Nelson led a public poll. Private polling, even surveys conducted by Democrats, also show Nelson behind Scott.
Still, Washington Democrats say they are winning. And party leaders are voicing confidence in Nelson and the favorable political climate for Democrats as well as what they see as Scott’s baggage.
“Despite Rick Scott’s enormous wealth, we have never doubted that Sen. Nelson would win. Even after Scott has spent tens of millions on false attack ads, Nelson is still in a very strong position,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
But Republicans are defining the 75-year-old Nelson as anything but strong. They’re mocking him as past his prime, an attack Nelson’s campaign calls as ageist as it is inaccurate. And Republicans have relentlessly criticized Nelson for asserting some Florida counties’ voter registration systems have been “penetrated” by Russia — a claim he hasn’t backed up. Scott’s campaign released a Web ad last week mocking Nelson as “confused.”
“Nelson looks old and tired,” David McIntosh, who heads the conservative Club for Growth, said, summing up the Republican message.
In contrast to the worries Democrats have about Nelson, Republicans are effusive about Scott.
“The governor is coming on like gangbusters,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. “He’s run a very aggressive, early campaign and maybe surprised a few people.”
Nelson is attempting to appear more energetic. Earlier this month, he challenged Scott to a physical fitness contest. And in May, Nelson demonstrated his fitness at a Clearwater fire station by engaging in a “chin-up challenge.”
He was not available for an interview in the Capitol, but his campaign said “Nelson believes that if you just do your job and, as he’s always done, treat public office as a public trust, the politics will take care of itself.”
“His opponent, on the other hand, has done a poor job as governor and has gotten a lot richer while in public office,” said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Nelson’s campaign.
Indeed, Scott is beset by a string of bad headlines at home: from accusations of conflicts of interest to favoring campaign donors to his regulation-cutting environmental record as the state suffers historic water pollution problems.
But Nelson hasn’t stayed on message attacking Scott. His genial, laid-back style doesn’t lend itself to throwing constant haymakers, contrasting sharply with the pugilistic campaigns being run by most other at-risk senators. He just started raising money seriously online this cycle, according to a Democratic source, and he subsequently pulled in $4.4 million in the latest fundraising quarter.
“He may be smarter than we all think. But he’s not a modern-day campaigner,” said one Senate Democrat. “He’s very old school.”
Despite Nelson’s uptick in activity, Democrats are worried about Scott’s seemingly unlimited pile of money. Already, Scott’s campaign has spent more than $27 million, according to OpenSecrets, to Nelson’s $6 million. That means national Republicans can concentrate elsewhere.
“Of course, I’m worried about it. It doesn’t give us any comfort to know we’re going to be dramatically outspent,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Nelson has never faced a heavyweight opponent like the independently wealthy Scott, who has already pumped $20.6 million of his own money in the race and is riding his highest poll numbers ever amid the strong economy. Unprompted, Indiana GOP Senate candidate Mike Braun said earlier this month that of his fellow GOP challengers this cycle, “only Rick Scott in Florida” has better than even odds to pick up a seat “because the resources have been there.” Other Democrats are generally leading their opponents in the money race.
Republicans are suggesting that Democrats might give up on Nelson and concentrate on less expensive states sooner rather than later.
“They’ve got such a big map this year, it’s going to be really hard for them where they are trying to figure out how to reallocate resources,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader. If you weren’t in Florida, “you could spend a lot of money in North Dakota, Montana and Missouri and places like that.”
Democrats say Scott’s stewardship of the state and its environment will turn the race against him. But the next few weeks will define the party’s commitment. As long as Nelson keeps it close, Democrats say he will retain the party’s support.
“But the truth is, if the numbers look like he’s going down, they’re going to pull back,” said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the 2016 Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman. “I don’t think they will.”
Consider: It costs as much as $3 million a week to saturate the Florida airwaves. That could fund an entire stretch run of ads in a cheaper state like North Dakota or Montana. Already, $10 million more has been spent in the Florida Senate race than in other battlegrounds.
The financial disparity between the two sides is glaring when it comes to TV ad buys. Factoring in the support of outside groups, Scott’s side has spent nearly $34 million. Nelson’s side: almost $12 million.
Democratic groups, namely Senate Majority PAC, have tried to make up for the disparity. The group and its affiliates have spent nearly $11 million so far — with much more to come.
“Rick Scott is trying to buy his way into the election,” said Chris Hayden, a spokesman for Senate Majority PAC. “We have reserved $23 million in the fall. We’ve spent a lot, and we’re going to win this race … we’re leading.”
The DSCC intends to make a financial commitment in the race, though it has made no final decision on what form it would take, according to a committee source. DSCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland dismissed the idea that the Democrats would pull out of Florida as they did in 2016. After all, Nelson is an incumbent.
“We are all in,” Van Hollen said. “Rick Scott has got boatloads of money. But we also know that even though he’s spent all that money in the past, he’s barely scraped through in Republican years.”
Democrats are betting that in a year in which Trump is putting the GOP in a hole on the generic ballot, this won’t be Scott’s year.
“I’m not saying our confidence is in Nelson. Our confidence is in the dynamics,” said one Democrat working on 2018 races.
The incumbent has amassed seniority in the Senate that bolsters his argument that he’d be more effective than Scott. But Nelson is playing catch-up with the Democratic base.
Democrats like Sears in Miami wondered whether Nelson should have faced a primary to sharpen him up after a few Democrats mused about challenging him but didn’t. And some Democrats, believing a blue wave was coming, convinced themselves that the independently wealthy Scott wasn’t going to run for the enate due to his close association with an unpopular president. Sears said that was a mistake.
“I don’t take Rick Scott for granted,” she said. “Too many people in our community don’t know who Bill Nelson is.”
Without strong African-American turnout and support, Democrats typically lose statewide in Florida. Black voters are part of the four-legged stool that supportsthe party, in addition to Hispanics, and centrist and progressive whites.
A centrist in style and cautious by nature, Nelson hasn’t fired up progressives. And Nelson hasn’t kept up with the state’s burgeoning Puerto Rican population, while Scott has moved in.
More than a year ago, Scott started seriously laying the groundwork for a Senate bid and capitalized on those efforts when Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico. The storm sent tens of thousands of evacuees to Florida, which was already home to the largest Boricua population off the island. Scott welcomed evacuees and took multiple trips to the island.
By the time Nelson caught up, focus groups and polls indicate, Scott had made enough inroads with the state’s Puerto Rican population that it alarmed Democrats, who need strong Democratic-leaning Boricua votes in Central Florida to counteract the Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans of South Florida.
Nelson barely led Scott among Florida voters of Puerto Rican descent, according to a recent poll from a coalition of Democratic-leaning Latino groups.
Mayra Macias, political director for the group Latino Victory Fund, which helped fund the poll, told POLITICO at the time: “Nelson has a lot of work to do.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.