September 24, 2018

Too Close to Call: Surprisingly Competitive Senate Races, Florida Edition

Owen Taylor

As we rapidly approach November 6th, election day for the 2018 mid-terms, it appears increasingly likely that the Democratic Party will win enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives, while the Republican Party will maintain its majority in the Senate. Currently, the Democrats have a generic polling advantage of around 8 percentage points, and, while this number tends to fluctuate, this type of polling is historically highly correlative with large seat pickups in past mid-terms for the party out of power.

While the House is much likelier to flip than the Senate, where the Democrats are defending 24 seats, 10 of which are states that President Trump won 2016, there are three Senate races that are much closer than originally predicted and worth highlighting: Texas, Florida, and Tennessee.

Tennessee:

Phil Bredesen v. Marsha Blackburn

Tuesday September 25, 2018


Texas Senate:

Bill Nelson (D) vs. Rick Scott (R)

 

 

In a year where the Senate map heavily favors Republicans, only months ago Democratic strategists would have highlighted Missouri, North Dakota, or even Indiana as the battlegrounds for their most vulnerable incumbents. While those races remain highly competitive, the right circumstances have aligned for Republicans in the Sunshine State to add Florida to among those ranks. Governor Rick Scott, who is term limited and unable to run for reelection in 2018, announced his candidacy for the US Senate in April. Due to his name recognition and nearly bottomless war chest, the Florida senate race has been shifted to “toss up” territory, according to Cook Political Report.

Florida is a swing state, through and through. In 2008 Floridians narrowly helped solidify Senator Obama’s historic presidential victory, and voters reelected President Obama in 2012 by an even smaller margin. The state then flipped for Donald Trump in 2016 by just two points, while also re-electing Senator Rubio by a more comfortable seven point margin. As Florida has recently inched to the right, senior Senator Bill Nelson remains the only Democratic statewide elected official. While some Florida Democrats can take solace knowing that Nelson has outperformed all Democratic presidential nominees since Al Gore, the traditional advantage incumbents have may not pan out in Florida.

Florida has a critical, ever-growing voting bloc whose impact on this election cannot be ignored.

When a humanitarian disaster hit Puerto Rico last summer in the wake of Hurricane Maria, it was Governor Rick Scott who swiftly courted Florida’s influx of Puerto Ricans, making countless trips to disaster areas and mobilizing a host of state resources to aid the island. Scott’s engagement with these new Florida residents did not go unnoticed. His popularity among Puerto Ricans is evidenced in a Florida International University poll showing Scott maintaining a 55% approval rating, and a whopping 82% approval from those Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida in the past year since Maria. Needless to say, like most high profile elections in the 2018 cycle, President Trump is a factor, and presents an interesting dilemma for Scott. In the same FIU poll which showed legitimate in-roads Scott has made to the Puerto Rican community, Donald Trump’s abysmally low 18% approval among those exact voters can’t be ignored. Scott was one of the first Republican governors in the nation to embrace Trump’s candidacy in 2016, hosting fundraisers, and even an election night party for the New York billionaire. After Trump’s inauguration, Scott frequented the White House and never shied away from praising the president. Now, Scott finds himself having to navigate his close relationship between an unpopular president and a group of voters who have strong distaste for the president. In a July campaign rally for Ron DeSantis in Tampa, Scott made no appearance. His tricky balancing act became even more problematic earlier in the month, when President Trump took to Twitter to publicly dispute the death toll from Hurricane Maria. Trump suggested that a George Washington University study—which calculated around 3,000 deaths tied to the hurricane—was an inflated figure, ultimately manufactured by Democrats to make him “look as bad as possible.” Scott quickly took to Twitter to push back on such claims, parting with the president and reaffirming the total loss of life found in the independent study.

The death toll dispute—coupled by an overall lackluster federal response, and the optics of Trump playfully tossing paper towels to a crowd—do little to help the Trump-aligned governor. While no demographic group ought to be taken for granted by any political party, it’s hard to see a majority of Puerto Ricans in Florida backing a candidate so closely tied to President Trump. In Texas, Ted Cruz was eager for the president to accept his invitation to headline a campaign event. In Florida, Rick Scott has thus far made no indication he wants assistance from the White House. Conversely, President George W. Bush will be headlining an upcoming fundraiser for Scott in Palm Beach.

Bill Nelson has his own set of obstacles to break through. Despite involvement in Florida politics on the state and federal levels since the 1970’s, Nelson’s statewide visibility and name recognition is not nearly on par with Scott’s. His tenure in the US Senate has, by most accounts, lacked a defining moment. He’s been characterized by the Scott campaign as being absent and confused. Nelson’s failure to substantiate an earlier claim that Florida’s voter registration systems were infiltrated by Russians doesn’t exactly help counter that narrative. Some would argue that he also lacks the charisma necessary to inspire minority voting blocs Florida Democrats desperately rely on for any statewide success. Nelson’s saving graces may just be an unpopular president, an environmental disaster on Florida’s coasts that many have largely blamed on Governor Scott’s policies, and downballot voters turning out in large for a gubernatorial candidate that has fired up progressives. In fact, Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum’s recent victory over moderate Gwen Graham in the Democratic gubernatorial primary may just be the best thing to happen to Bill Nelson on the downballot.

Fundraising will also play a critical factor in this hot senate race. Rick Scott’s immense personal wealth and aggressive fundraising scheme has thus far put him far ahead of Nelson in the money game. Still, polls show a race that’s a true toss-up. Nelson does have the backing of the DSCC, although they would certainly like to focus their resources for Democrats in states even redder than Florida. The chairman of the DSCC, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), recently assured the Nelson campaign of the DSCC’s steadfast backing, pushing back on any talk of yanking funding like they did in 2016 after Marco Rubio widened the gap against Patrick Murphy. As recently as this morning, the Tampa Bay Times reported a University of North Florida poll showing Bill Nelson and Rick Scott tied at 45% each, where 13% of Democrats are reportedly unsure of who they’ll eventually support, while just 4% of Republicans are unsure.

Because the stars have aligned for Democrats to have an actual shot in Tennessee and Texas—two traditionally very red states—talk of Democrats taking back the Senate is not statistically out of the question. For any shot at that reality, Nelson has to win in November.


Owen Taylor

Owen Taylor is a Client Executive with Prime Policy Group and a member of the firm’s research team. He assists a number of lobbyists working in various practice areas by performing in-depth research and monitoring of legislative issues relevant to client interests.