Overnight Surprise: Rick Scott and Bill Nelson Head Towards a Recount

Apparently, the race to claim a U.S. Senate seat isn’t over in Florida.

Even as Republican Rick Scott was delivering his victory speech in Naples just after midnight, a few counties were still fielding a trickle of ballots. By 3:30 a.m. Scott’s lead over incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson had dwindled to below the threshold of certainty and into recount territory.

At 5 a.m., Scott held only a 38,717-vote lead over Nelson. That’s 50.2 percent to Nelson’s 49.8 percent — or .4 percent.

In Florida, when a margin of victory is under .5 percent, a recount is automatic.

CNN is reporting that absentee ballots postmarked on Nov. 6 — Election Day — may take another day or two to arrive, so the total could change.

Florida already is infamous for its election recounts, based on 2000’s dramatic recount during the weeks after Election Day in the 2000 United States presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. It was watched by the whole world. The Florida vote was ultimately settled in Bush’s favor by a margin of 537 votes when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Bush v. Gore, stopped a recount that had been initiated on a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court. That, in turn, gave Bush a majority of votes in the Electoral College and victory in the presidential election.

Scott, meanwhile, is no stranger to “winning slim.” In both of his gubernatorial elections, he won by less than 2 percentage points — in 2010, with 48.9 percent to Alex Sink’s 47.7 percent; in 2014, with 48.1 percent to Charlie Crist’s 47.1 percent.

Scott — with strong job creation and tourism numbers — was climbing steadily against Nelson early in the summer. But then he sailed into a perfect storm:

  • The Valentine’s Day massacre of 17 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and its emotional aftermath put a spotlight on Florida’s gun laws, and ultimately the governor.
  • A wetter-than-usual rainy season caused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release millions of gallons of fresh Lake Okeechobee water to tide through the St. Lucie estuary. It fostered a severe blue-green algae outbreak along the Treasure Coast. It made people sick and fish sick and closed beaches.
  • A natural-occurring red tide — one of the fiercest in most Floridians’ recollection — roamed the length of Florida’s west coast, finally moving around the end of the peninsula and into the Atlantic. Along the way it also closed beaches, fouled the water, killed fish and hurt tourism-related businesses.
  • He took heat for signing a widely misunderstood bill protecting customary use — or beach access — when political forces in Walton County, in particular attorney Dan Uhlfelder and restaurateur Dave Rauschkolb, turned the bill into a Rick Scott vendetta against the Panhandle county. Bill Nelson found political opportunity in Walton County — traditionally a Republican stronghold — turning up at the beach with Uhlfelder for a press conference. He chastised Scott, accusing him of trying to ban the public from Florida beaches.
  • The state’s mainstream media, taking their lead from the Tampa Bay Times, launched a crusade to blame Scott for all of the state’s environmental ills, largely because he had cut agencies and withheld money and resources from water management districts during his first year as governor, while the state was climbing out of a recession.

But Scott performed well, as he did after Hurricanes Hermine and Irma, for the stricken Panhandle after category 4 Hurricane Michael laid waste to whole towns and people’s lives. It seemed to pick him up “to be there for Florida families.” He suspended his personal appearances on the campaign trail, spending his days Mexico City, Panama City and other devastated communities.

As governor, he has criticized the Affordable Care Act, though at one point he expressed support for Medicaid expansion. He later had a change of heart and now opposes it. Florida is one of the states suing to dismantle the health care law, and Scott has called for the repeal of Obamacare. He does, however, say he wants to keep provisions that protect those with pre-existing conditions.

Scott has also been a proponent of lower state taxes, and he supported the tax bill passed by the Republicans at the end of 2017.

Scott opposes illegal immigration, but he maintains a moderate position and has called on Congress to secure the immigration status of DREAMers under DACA.

On guns, Scott signed a gun and school safety bill that imposed new age limits on rifle purchases, created a provision that would allow guns to be taken from an individual considered to be a threat.

Nelson, a centrist, has been running on health care. He wants to protect the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicaid and has attacked Scott for opposing the health care law.

Immigration has also been a cornerstone of Nelson’s campaign. The incumbent has long supported comprehensive immigration reform that would give visas to some undocumented immigrants while at the same time increasing border security.

During the summer Nelson made a controversial claim that Russians had hacked Florida’s election systems before the midterms, but FBI Director Christopher Wray and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a letter to the Florida secretary of state that “we have not seen new or ongoing compromises of state or local infrastructure in Florida.”

The Scott-Nelson battle is the costliest Senate race in Florida history.

Through mid-October, Scott, 65, had raised about $69 million for his Senate campaign, according to the Federal Elections Commission. Some $60 million of that came out of his own pocket. Democrat Nelson, 76, seeking his fourth term in the Senate, had raised $28 million.

Both campaigns have been bolstered and attacked by outside political groups. Groups have spent $17.7 million to support Nelson, with $35 million to attack Scott, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign spending.

Outside groups have also spent more than $31 million attacking Nelson, according to the center.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith