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'Red Wave' May Have Ended Bill Nelson's Long Political Career


Longtime U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is not conceding defeat in his attempt for a fourth term in Washington. If he doesn't prevail, it will leave the Democrats without a single statewide elected official.

Bill Nelson was apparently narrowly defeated in his quest for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Just over 30,000 votes separated the candidates in a race where 8.1 million Floridians cast ballots. That margin of less than one half of 1 percent could mean a recount in every Florida county.

That possible challenge to the results was clear just after midnight in a downtown Orlando hotel, when Nelson's former chief of staff, Pete Mitchell, said media reports were calling the race for Scott.

"The senator will be making a full statement tomorrow to thank all those who rallied to his cause," Mitchell said. "Thank you."

Nelson didn't concede, and his campaign is calling for a recount. If it happens, Nelson's campaign is ready to have supporters in every county monitoring it.

The close race took what had been a raucous scene at Nelson’s watch party to a serene gathering pretty early on. People were leaving long before results were complete.

Nelson supporter Ray Vasquez of Winter Springs said the result wasn’t unexpected.

"You could kind of see it coming with the way people were talking, and the way Trump was stirring up his base," he said.

Vasquez said in the past few weeks, he didn’t see much sign of Democrats being motivated to vote.

"For the most part, it was pretty even. It was split down the middle. It was really divided…everybody had their own ideology and they were sticking to it, no matter what," Vasquez said. "Everybody was sticking to their side, and that was it. You couldn’t talk them out of anything."

Many people believed Nelson would be helped by a big turnout for governor candidate Andrew Gillum, sending waves of Democrats to the polls. But Republicans seemed to be more motivated to vote, sending Ron DeSantis to the governor’s mansion and Scott to Washington, D.C.

"For Nelson, what it probably means is it pretty much ends his political career," said longtime Florida political journalist William March.

"He’s had a long career as what you might call a moderate, centrist Democrat," March said. "That’s been his goal, to be that business-friendly, thoughtful, comparatively soft-spoken worker in both Congress and the Senate."

Nelson, 76, has been a fixture in Florida politics since he was elected to Congress when he was 30 years old. The resident of Melbourne was an ardent backer of the space program, representing the Space Coast.

Nelson was rewarded for his advocacy by being chosen to fly on the Space Shuttle. His flight on the Columbia in 1986 became part of his campaign lore and figured prominently in his election campaigns.

He served in Congress until 1991, but he lost the Democratic primary for governor to Lawton Chiles, who later captured the governor’s mansion. He was out of office briefly before being elected to what was then called the state treasurer, insurance commissioner and fire marshal.

March said Scott was Nelson’s toughest opponent yet.

"Nelson’s last two opponents for the Senate were comparatively weak challengers," he said. "One was Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the other was Connie Mack IV. Not Connie Mack the Senator, but his son. Both of them ran comparatively weak campaigns, neither managed to generate much excitement beyond the base of the Republican Party."

This time, it appeared that Nelson may be the one who couldn't garner enough support. If the election night results are verified, Scott will join fellow Republican Marco Rubio in the Senate - in January.


Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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