Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s long-awaited clash with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has the makings of the most expensive Senate race ever — and that spells trouble for Democrats everywhere else.
Strategists in both parties think this race could cost up to $200 million, dwarfing the record $180 million they spent fighting over Pennsylvania in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Scott, a multimillionaire, hasn’t ruled out spending tens of millions of his own money as he has in the past.
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Not only does Nelson lack that luxury, but Democrats are defending nine other incumbents in states President Donald Trump carried as they challenge for control of the Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-49 edge. And a free-spending Scott campaign in the nation’s largest swing state could strain Democratic resources across the red-tinted Senate map.
“He has unlimited money, we know that he’ll spend it, and as the campaign progresses you’ll see how much his personal wealth has increased while he’s been governor,” Nelson told POLITICO after meeting privately with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill.
Nelson suggested that Scott could single-handedly spend upward of $100 million on the race — an unlikely prospect for a governor who reported a personal net worth of $149 million last year, but a possibility because the governor’s wife has millions more socked away. And Democrats acknowledge that the threat of Scott’s finances alone will force them to shovel more of their own money into Florida.
“Now there’s national money that has to get diverted to Florida. So if you’re in another marginal or competitive state — a state like a Tennessee or an Arizona, which are eminently winnable for Democrats — there’s just fewer dollars available for you to tap into nationwide,” said Mo Elleithee, a former Democratic National Committee spokesman and current executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.
“It’s impossible, impossible, for a Florida race to be inexpensive,” said Elleithee, who was Janet Reno’s spokesman in her 2002 race for Florida governor against Jeb Bush. “It’s not that it’s a zero-sum game. But for Democrats it would have been nice to have one less expensive state to have to dump money into so that money could go into other states.”
That pull on resources from Senate Majority PAC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee could allow Republicans to get a monetary edge in cheaper states on the map like North Dakota, West Virginia and Indiana, though Democrats insist their candidates have enough of a cash advantage to stave off the GOP and its big-money backers. It also would make the few states where Democrats are on offense like Nevada and Arizona that much more challenging.
“Florida is a game-changing state,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, predicting the Sunshine State would be “prohibitively expensive to protect” for Democrats.
“It could well make the difference in the majority,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a two-time National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman.
The problem isn’t without precedent: Last cycle’s clash between Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio and his Democratic challenger, then-Rep. Patrick Murphy, saw a whopping $89 million in spending despite Democratic groups largely abandoning Murphy down the stretch. Democrats slowly pulled their spending from the state, believing it made more sense to fund challengers in North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana than to bet their entire fortunes on Florida.
“It’s a definite advantage for Republicans in other states even if Scott doesn’t beat Nelson,” said Terry Sullivan, a partner at Firehouse Strategies who was the general manager of Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “It’s a victory for Republicans outside of Florida as much as it a victory for Republicans in Florida.”
But Democrats have something that money can’t buy: the unpopularity of Trump, who has been a factor in bellwether state and federal races recently lost by Republicans from Florida to Alabama to Pennsylvania. Voters traditionally punish the party of the White House occupant, which was a factor in Scott’s narrow wins in 2010 and 2014. In contrast to those races, when Scott frequently mentioned President Barack Obama, he said nothing about Trump in his Monday campaign launch. And Florida has seen an influx of thousands of Puerto Ricans after last year’s hurricane and the Trump administration’s bungled response could sway those voters who could tip the balance of the state away from Republicans.
Senators in Nelson’s position have a good historical record running in midterms after a president from the other party carried their state. “Since ’94, incumbents in this position are 21-3 — and the only losses came when the president’s approval was significantly higher than Trump’s is now,” MSNBC correspondent Steve Kornacki tweeted.
Yet Nelson’s fellow Democratic senators spent Monday riding to the rescue, even as his party insists he remains a favorite thanks to a strong name-brand in Florida.
Some of the party’s most potent small-dollar online fundraisers — including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tim Kaine of Virginia — sent fundraising emails on Nelson’s behalf Monday.
“If Senator Nelson loses, which is a real possibility, a powerful voice on the issues we all care about would be gone; replaced with somebody who will essentially rubber-stamp the Trump agenda,” Harris wrote in her missive, which went out under the subject line “Trump begged him to run for U.S. Senate.” “Furthermore, there is absolutely no chance Democrats can take the U.S. Senate back without winning this race.”
The DSCC, Senate Majority PAC and American Bridge have all been focused on the contest, with the party unleashing a barrage of digital ads aimed at Scott as he entered the race. The Senate Majority PAC ad, backed by a six-figure buy, attacks Scott for refusing to expand Medicaid while giving tax cuts to the rich and says the governor “won’t look out for you.”
In most states across the Senate map, Democratic candidates have outperformed Republican opponents. Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke raised an eye-popping $6.7 million for his race against Sen. Ted Cruz in the first quarter of 2018 — the biggest haul so far of any candidate running in the midterm elections. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill raised more than $3.9 million in the first three months of the year, while two other challengers, Reps. Jacky Rosen in Nevada and Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, brought in over $2 million for their bids.
That “hard money” advantage Democrats are building could help their candidates air more TV ads in the fall, since super PACs and other outside groups often get charged higher rates for advertising.
But there’s only so much a Senate candidate can raise $5,400 at a time, while super PACs can accept donations of unlimited size (and Scott can make them himself). Strategists say that it could cost a campaign at least $3 million weekly for saturation statewide TV advertising across Florida’s major media markets.
Scott shied away from saying he’d personally kick in as much money as he did in 2010 during his first race — about $73 million — and instead referenced his reelection campaign, when he spent about $13 million of his own money.
“I’m planning on winning. I’m going to run to win,” Scott said when asked how much of his own money he would contribute. “I’m committed to raising the resources required just like I did in 2014. I’m going to aggressively travel the state and tell people why they need to support me. But we’ll see.”