So important is it to Florida Democrats that they unseat Republican Rick Scott that some are saying the only Democrat holding statewide office, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, should take on Scott in the 2014 governor’s race.
Nelson apparently isn’t ruling it out.
In response to questions about the possibility this week, Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin issued a statement carefully worded to suggest Nelson isn’t pursuing the idea but isn’t rejecting it either.
“We’ve been getting lots of calls from supporters urging Sen. Nelson to consider running for governor,” McLaughlin said.
“Right now he’s just focused on doing his job in the Senate and not envisioning a circumstance under which he’d do so. Still, he remains very concerned about the state’s future.”
Advisers who confer with Nelson regularly but didn’t want to be quoted by name confirmed he has taken note of the calls from backers.
Major Democratic donors and Nelson backers differ on whether they consider it a good idea.
One argument in favor: Nelson, who just won re-election in November to his third six-year term in the Senate, wouldn’t have to leave his Senate seat to run for governor.
If he won, he would appoint a successor to serve his Senate term until the 2016 election.
The appointee then could run for election, which presents the risk that Democrats might lose the only statewide seat they now hold, Nelson’s Senate seat, plus Democratic control of the U.S. Senate.
But in 2016, a presidential election year, Democrats could expect a better turnout of their voters than in an off-year election. Hillary Clinton is being urged to lead the 2016 Democratic ticket, generating enthusiasm in the Democratic base and coattails for a Florida Senate candidate to grab.
“That could be the perfect storm for a Democratic appointee to win election,” said Ana Cruz, of Tampa, a Democratic political consultant.
“We can’t rebuild the party in a state this size without a Democrat in the governor’s mansion,” Cruz said.
Unseating Scott is by far the priority for Florida Democrats in 2014.
They’ve exulted over polls showing Scott, with negative job approval ratings, losing to several potential 2014 Democratic candidates, including former Gov. Charlie Crist and former CFO Alex Sink, of Tampa.
Nelson himself, not normally a partisan firebrand, has used strong language criticizing Scott over Scott’s rejection of federal funding for a high-speed rail system, his stance on oil drilling off the Florida coast, and voting regulations Nelson calls “voter suppression.”
But unseating Scott is far from a sure thing. He doesn’t deny reports his political team is planning to spend up to $100 million if necessary on his re-election.
And Democrats aren’t entirely happy with their field candidates.
Crist, a former Republican, could be vulnerable to attack as a party switcher who has changed his views on numerous issues. Sink, who lost to Scott in 2010, is highly respected but thought to have run a poor campaign.
Other candidates or potential candidates — former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, former state Sen. Nan Rich and others — have never run for statewide office and lack name recognition.
“He would clearly be the strongest candidate” Democrats could field, said Miami lawyer Neal Sonnett, a major Democratic donor and fundraiser. “I think he swamps Rick Scott.”
“At this early stage, there isn’t anybody emerging as a superstrong candidate other than perhaps Charlie Crist, but he could have problems because of the party switching.”
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said Nelson is “already defined in most people’s minds,” which makes him less vulnerable to attack ads Scott could run.
Dyer, a potential candidate who took himself out of the running recently, said several Democrats have told him “they’ve floated the idea” by Nelson, with the response that “it’s a possibility.”
Nelson ran for governor in 1990 but lost in the Democratic primary when former U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles, who had previously assured Democrats he wasn’t running, changed his mind and entered the race.
If he became governor, he would be the only person several political junkies could think of to have served in the state Legislature, the state Cabinet, the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and governor’s office.
Some Democrats said Nelson running for governor while holding his Senate seat and planning to appoint his own successor would smack of political opportunism.
Orlando Democratic fundraiser Richard Swann doubts Nelson would do it. “I’ve tried to talk him into running for governor before, and he wasn’t interested.”
Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman said it could “disappoint the people who supported him in that re-election” in November and would give up the seniority that’s expected to make Nelson the next chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
“I’m very concerned about the Senate and making sure Democrats hold on to it,” she said. “I can’t imagine losing the Senate with a Republican House — or rather I can imagine it, and it scares the hell out of me. We have a very slim margin, and it has to be retained.
“At the end of the day I think we will have a candidate strong enough to beat Rick Scott.”