Rick Scott is seemingly everywhere Florida voters look.
The Republican governor now running for the U.S. Senate has poured $16 million into television advertising since announcing his bid — 16,698 spots on English-language broadcast TV alone. He’s also held scores of campaign events and is almost a constant presence thanks to his role as state’s chief executive.
“If you were watching the World Cup on Telemundo, every time there was a halftime for every single match, there was a Rick Scott commercial talking about his activities and his work to help Puerto Rican refugees,” said Freddy Balsera, a Miami-based Democratic strategist and fundraiser supporting the man Scott wants to unseat, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.
Nelson, facing his most competitive Senate race since he won the seat in 2000, has yet to run any broadcast television ads. He doesn’t plan to until Aug. 29, the day after the Florida primary, even though the general election race is set. His campaign appearances have mostly been confined to weekends, when the Senate is out of session.
The Florida Senate race is shaping up to be one of the costliest and closest contests in the 2018 campaign. As it is in presidential campaigns, the state also may be pivotal in the Nov. 6 congressional election that will decide control of Congress and whether President Donald Trump’s agenda advances or is stalled.
Nelson, 75, is one of 10 incumbent Democratic senators running in a state Trump won in 2016. But Florida is the very definition of a swing state. Trump won there by 1 percentage point, as did Democrat Barack Obama in 2012.
Scott, a former health care executive, invested tens of millions of his own money in his two campaigns for governor in 2010 and 2014, yet his margin of victory in both was a single percentage point. Nelson was re-elected to a third term in 2012 with 55 percent of the vote.
Recent polling suggests this race will be another close fight. A Mason-Dixon poll of likely voters conducted July 24-25 found Scott up by 3 percentage points, within the 4-point margin of error.
Balsera and other Nelson supporters said Scott right now is leveraging a role that keeps him in Florida instead of Washington, but there are creeping concerns that his early barrage may leave the Democrat behind.
“You’re not going to fault him for tenacity, for effort, for diligence,” Balsera said of Scott. “And I think there are a lot of Democrats that are beginning to worry and want to see a Bill Nelson that can keep up with Rick Scott in terms of energy and visibility and overall presence.”
Nelson’s campaign has booked $18 million in TV time for its initial reservation, and outside groups already are ramping up support for him. The top super-PAC affiliated with Senate Democrats, the Senate Majority PAC, has run 4,888 broadcast TV spots at an estimated cost of $5.1 million, while airing another $1.1 million of cable TV ads, according to data from Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political advertising. Majority Forward, a non-profit group affiliated with the Senate Majority PAC, is booked to spend $1.8 million in the state this week and next week on broadcast TV, cable TV and satellite TV.
“The campaign is focused on talking with Floridians directly about the issues that matter to them and the importance of voting in November to ensure they have a strong independent leader in Bill Nelson who will fight for them,” said Carlie Waibel, a spokeswoman for the Nelson campaign.
The campaign has focused on direct voter contact programs like door-knocking and phone banking. It has released four digital ads, including one Spanish-language ad.
Bob Buckhorn, the Democratic mayor of Tampa who backs Nelson, said that while an incumbent governor “will always have to some degree a built-in advantage” and that Scott’s doggedness shouldn’t be underestimated, he trusts Nelson’s instincts and timing. He dismissed concerns from some of his fellow Democrats that Nelson risks falling behind.
‘Double or Triple’
“Rick Scott’s M.O. in the last two governor’s races has been get out early, spend a bunch of money, define your opponent in negative terms and then in the last three weeks double or triple whatever they’re spending,” he said.
But if October comes “and there’s a big gap in spending, yeah I’d say that’s problematic,” Buckhorn said.
The spending so far by Scott, 65, who didn’t formally enter the campaign until April, already represents almost $1 out of every $10 spent so far on broadcast TV in all Senate primary, special and general election campaigns nationwide for the entire 2017-18 election cycle.
Scott ranked first among all Senate candidates for fundraising and spending during the second quarter. He took in $22.5 million, including $14.1 million of his own money, and ended the quarter with $4.5 million cash on hand after spending $18 million.
Nelson spent just $1.2 million, while raising $4.4 million. His more cautious outlays left him with $13.7 million in the bank, an advantage Scott’s deep pockets and prodigious fundraising could easily neutralize.
For Republicans hoping to expand their Senate majority, Scott’s high name recognition in the state and his ability to use his personal fortune for the race makes Florida a prime pickup opportunity. The race also may have ripple effects by sucking up money that Democrats might be directing elsewhere.
“Rick Scott getting into that Florida Senate race and putting that seat in play, regardless of what ultimately happens, is a game-changer,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which plans to knock on doors and distribute voter guides to turn out evangelical Christian voters in Florida. It means Democrats have “got to spend a lot of money there that they would have been able to spend in a smaller, cheaper state.”
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