Rick Scott Senate Run Returns Florida to Battleground

Gov. Rick Scott of Florida was joined by his wife, Ann, in Orlando on Monday as he announced his campaign for the United States Senate.

MIAMI — Gov. Rick Scott made official on Monday what Floridians have suspected for months: He is running for the United States Senate against Bill Nelson, the incumbent Democrat, in a premier race that will return the nation’s largest swing state to its familiar role as the political vortex of a tumultuous election year.

“This is going to be a lot of fun,” Mr. Scott, wearing his usual Navy baseball cap, said in an announcement on Facebook Live from an Orlando construction company, before embarking on the kind of statewide tour that has become his signature over two terms as governor. “We’re going to make sure that Washington works for us.”

With his formal entry into the campaign, Mr. Scott, a 65-year-old Republican, made Florida a centerpiece of the midterm elections, featuring one of the most expensive Senate races in the country, as well as an open governor’s race and up to a half-dozen competitive House races. The contest between Mr. Nelson and Mr. Scott alone is expected to cost $100 million, or even much more, chiefly from spending on television advertising across Florida’s 10 broadcast media markets. Mr. Scott, a multimillionaire former health care executive, invested millions of his own money into his successful campaigns for governor in 2010 and 2014.

The Florida Senate battle will be a microcosm of national Republicans’ fight to keep control of Congress under President Trump, whose policies and demeanor have invigorated Democratic voters. Mr. Nelson is one of 10 Democratic senators seeking re-election in states Mr. Trump won in 2016, and Republicans have repeatedly bested Democrats in most statewide Florida midterm races since 2006 — though Mr. Nelson’s win was one of two Democratic victories that year.

Since the 2000 presidential recount, Florida has become a perennial must-win state for both parties. Mr. Trump’s campaign focused heavily on the state in 2016, and Republican leaders in Congress were so fearful of losing the Senate that year that they persuaded Senator Marco Rubio, who had announced his retirement to begin his own unsuccessful presidential bid, to seek re-election.

Democrats need to flip two seats to piece together a majority in 2018. They have more competitive seats to defend than Republicans and cannot afford to lose Mr. Nelson, said Nathan Gonzales, the editor of Inside Elections.

“If Democrats lose in Florida, it puts pressure on the party to win in much more Republican territory — in states such as Texas or Tennessee or Nebraska,” Mr. Gonzales said.

Mr. Scott’s candidacy leaves Democrats with no choice but to divert time and money to Florida, where elections are close even in years in which national races are not as competitive. Former President Barack Obama won re-election comfortably in 2012, but only by one percentage point in Florida, for example.

“I’ve always run every race like there’s no tomorrow — regardless of my opponent,” Mr. Nelson said in a statement on Monday. “While it’s clear that Rick Scott will say or do anything to get elected, I’ve always believed that if you just do the right thing, the politics will take care of itself.”

National Democrats already knew they would have to invest 2018 resources into the open governor’s race to replace the term-limited Mr. Scott. Democrats last held the governorship 20 years ago. Mr. Trump has endorsed Representative Ron DeSantis of Palm Coast in the Republican primary.

At the House level, the party also has targeted three seats held by Republican representatives in South Florida: Carlos Curbelo of Miami, Brian Mast of Palm City and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, who is retiring. Democrats consider two other Republican-held seats in play, though they would be a bigger reach for the party.

Republicans, for their part, are targeting two Democrats: Representatives Stephanie Murphy of Orlando and Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg.

“The last three midterm elections have all been referendums of the president,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist in Tallahassee. Mr. Schale cautioned that the dynamics of the 2018 race would be fluid until October, but added: “If you want to send a message to Trump, are you going to do it by voting for his biggest champion in the Southeast?”

In Mr. Scott, Mr. Nelson, 75, faces the toughest challenger of his Senate career, which began in 2001 after stints in the House and as the state’s appointed treasurer in Tallahassee. Despite his many years of political experience, Mr. Nelson remains unknown to some voters; a February poll conducted by the Jacksonville-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy found that 12 percent of respondents did not know the senator’s name, compared with 3 percent who did not recognize Mr. Scott’s.

A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters found in February that Mr. Scott’s approval rating was at 49 percent, higher than ever in the survey, with 40 percent of respondents disapproving of his job performance. In a matchup with Mr. Nelson, the senator led by 46 to 42 percent, essentially a statistical tie given the poll’s margin of error.

Mr. Scott was written off by the Republican establishment when he began his first campaign for governor amid a Tea Party wave. He poured $73 million into the race, and his relentless jobs message won him the governor’s mansion by a single percentage point over Alex Sink. He repeated his success in 2014, defeating Mr. Crist, again by a one-point margin.

But Democrats note that Mr. Scott did not crack 50 percent of the vote in either race, suggesting he failed to excite as many voters in the Republican base as past candidates in years more favorable to the party than 2018. Florida Democrats have been on a rare streak since September, winning a swing State Senate district in Miami, the mayor’s office in St. Petersburg and a Republican-leaning House district in Sarasota.

“Scott has also never run weighed down by an unpopular G.O.P. president and Congress,” Mindy Myers, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement outlining her party’s case against the governor. “This dynamic is sparking a backlash against G.O.P. candidates and deprives him of his traditional campaign message.”

The president has publicly encouraged Mr. Scott, though the governor did not mention Mr. Trump in his announcement — possibly to distance himself from the problematic national political environment.

In Orlando on Monday, Mr. Scott continued to cast himself as a confident outsider ready to upend the political status quo, despite seven years in Tallahassee in which he aligned himself with traditional Republican interests.

“I didn’t fit into Tallahassee because I didn’t play the insider games,” Mr. Scott said, surrounded by supporters and declining to take questions from reporters. “I never intended to fit into Tallahassee and, guess what? I’m not going to fit into Washington, either.”

Unencumbered by a primary, since no major Republican has appeared eager to take on the wealthy and undefeated governor in an expensive Senate race, Mr. Scott was able to use his announcement to reach out to the more moderate voters he will need in the general election. He stood next to Andrew Pollack, the father of one of the students killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in February. Mr. Pollack helped lobby state lawmakers to pass gun control legislation that Mr. Scott signed last month, in defiance of the National Rifle Association.

The governor was introduced by Luis Rivera Marín, the secretary of state of Puerto Rico, who made the trip to Orlando, a Puerto Rican stronghold that could see thousands of Hurricane Maria refugees register to vote before November. “We will be forever grateful to you, governor, for your knowledge on how to handle an emergency,” Mr. Rivera Marín said.

Mr. Scott offered a few sentences in the serviceable Spanish he learned before his 2014 re-election. Often a man of few words, he spoke for a total of about 15 minutes, without a stage, lectern or visible script. He recalled being raised by a single mother, his marriage to his high school sweetheart and his unlikely political career. He said he would run in part on setting term limits for members of Congress.

“I will bust my butt to win this election,” he said.

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