Rick Scott is off and running against Bill Nelson as the Republican looks to claim the Holy Grail of Florida politics: moving from the Governor’s Mansion to the U.S. Senate.
As the governor starts his Senate bid on Monday, history isn’t exactly on Scott’s side. Only three governors in Florida history ever made it to the Senate after their time in Tallahassee: Spessard Holland, Bob Graham and Napoleon Bonaparte Broward who died before he could take his Senate seat.
Of course, there are plenty of governors who failed trying to make the leap to Washington. Even some of the best regarded governors in Florida history like Reubin Askew and LeRoy Collins failed in their Senate bids. Looking back at Florida history, governors like Farris Bryant, Fred Cone, David Sholtz, Doyle Carlton and John W. Martin crashed and burned when they sought a Senate seat. More recently, so did Charlie Crist though he did manage to claim a House seat two years ago. Lawton Chiles is the only Florida politician to ever win the governorship after serving in the Senate.
There’s plenty of reasons for why governors generally fail when they try to move onto the Senate. While his look at Florida in “Southern Politics in State and Nation” is certainly dated, V.O. Key was spot on with some of his points about the Sunshine State. Florida’s geography and demographics make it near impossible for a politician to stay atop the state for too long a period of time. There’s simply too many new voters scattered across ten or more markets for anyone to remain in the saddle for too long. Just ask Jeb Bush who clearly lost out his “Florida’s favorite Republican” title in the last presidential election. Even Nelson has been impacted by this. It’s why almost every poll shows a quarter of the voters with no opinion on Florida’s senior senator despite having been on the political stage for more than four decades.
Being stretched out and facing high voter turnover every few years, Florida is almost impossible to politically master. This was true when it was, essentially, a one party state as part of the Democrats’ Solid South. It’s just as true now when presidential and gubernatorial races go down to the wire, even if recent Senate contests haven’t been particularly competitive.
Key stressed Florida’s unique political culture, insisting the state was “unbossed” and “unled.” That’s still the case today. There are plenty of ticket splitters in Florida which is why Nelson ran ahead of Democrats like Al Gore to Barack Obama. While 2010 and 2014 were banner years for Republicans, Scott barely won both times out. If Scott is going to defeat Nelson, he will have to do better, especially as this looks like a good year for Democrats.
Scott has plenty going for him, of course: a good record on jobs, the GOP generally being better organized in Florida than the Democrats, the ability to self-fund. Still, Nelson is a survivor who has beaten back challengers before. While Republicans often claim Nelson has never beaten anybody, he defeated Bill McCollum–who Scott beat in the primary back in 2010–and Connie Mack who worked closely with Mitt Romney’s team and was pegged as a rising star before Nelson crushed him in 2012.
In the meantime, the Sunshine State should get ready for a battle between two electoral heavyweights in Nelson and Scott which is going to overshadow everything else in Florida politics. With Scott leaving Tallahassee, there are competitive primaries on both sides of the aisle and some interesting Cabinet races shaping up. None of them, including the gubernatorial contest, are getting much attention. They’re all lost in the shadow of the Senate race and that will only continue as Scott comes out of his corner to start the main event.