TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — After a bruising and bitter U.S. Senate campaign that saw both sides unleash a torrent of negative TV ads, Florida voters are now choosing whether to keep three-term incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson or replace him with Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
The choice could help decide whether the Senate stays in Republican control.
The two candidates are heavyweights within each party: Nelson has withstood years of GOP dominance to remain the only Democrat elected statewide, while Scott is a two-term governor urged by President Donald Trump to take Nelson on.
A loss by the 76-year-old Nelson would likely end his political career and make it nearly impossible for Democrats to retake the Senate. If Scott loses, it could be a blow to his future political ambitions.
While the two men differ on issues such as gun control and health care, the election has been more about character, competence, and their relationships with Trump.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday across the state.
Tiffany McKelton, 21, and a psychology major at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, said she was inspired to vote by a group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were massacred in February. The Parkland students came to the campus last week.
“I’ve never voted in a primary election,” McKelton said. “I actually did it because of them.”
Also in central Florida, Anna Marie Hubscher is a registered Democrat who said she has no qualms about crossing over and voting for Republicans. That’s exactly what the retiree who lives on the Space Coast did in both the senate and governor races in this election.
She said she doesn’t like the idea of “Medicaid for all” because it’s too costly.
“I’m worried about tax increases mainly,” Hubscher said. “Especially for retirees, I want to make sure Medicare stays in place.”
Florida’s senate contest was seen as one of the nation’s marquee races, but it’s been overshadowed by the governor’s race between Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum, a vitriolic proxy battle between Trump and Democrats.
Scott has urged voters to “retire” Nelson, calling him ineffective and faulting him on everything from the level of federal support for the space program to the slow wait to get federal money to help repair the Lake Okeechobee dike.
“We need more workers in D.C. We need less talkers in D.C.,” Scott said during a Monday swing through The Villages retirement community, a GOP enclave in central Florida.
In response, Nelson has branded Scott as a Trump follower who has used the governor’s office to pad his wealth. He said Scott has “savaged” the environment, contributing to the toxic algae and red tide that have plagued the coast this year by cutting the budgets of water-management districts and limiting enforcement actions at the state’s environmental agency. Nelson also has criticized Scott for opposing President Barack Obama’s federal health care overhaul.
“Now more than ever, the country, indeed Florida, needs people they can trust,” Nelson said during a Miami campaign event on Friday with Obama. “We need leaders who know right from wrong.”
Nelson has been viewed as one of the nation’s most vulnerable Democrats thanks to the formidable challenge from Scott, a multimillionaire businessman who has poured more than $60 million of his own fortune into his campaign.
The 65-year-old governor planned to make the election a referendum on Nelson’s tenure, but found himself playing defense over his own record and became the target of vocal protests at some of his campaign stops.
The governor also began widely airing a television ad promising to retain the Affordable Care Act’s consumer protections for people with pre-existing conditions, even though Florida is one of the states involved in a lawsuit aimed at overturning the federal law. The governor has maintained he had nothing to do with the lawsuit, but he has not called for the state to withdraw from it.
Nelson and his allies ran ads questioning Scott’s ethics, pointing to his ouster as chief executive of health care giant Columbia/HCA amid a federal fraud investigation. Although Scott was never charged with any wrongdoing, the health care conglomerate paid a then-record $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud.
Nelson, whose long political career included a stint as the state’s insurance commissioner, has been put on the defensive this election season, as well, particularly over several public comments and statements.
Over the summer he triggered a firestorm when he said the Russians were meddling in Florida’s election system after an unsuccessful attempt in 2016. While top GOP senators would neither confirm nor deny Nelson’s statement, federal authorities told Florida election officials they saw no signs of any “new or ongoing compromises” of state or local election systems.
More recently, Nelson warned that the political strife in the nation could lead to the kind of genocide that happened in the African nation of Rwanda, where nearly a million people were killed in the early ’90s.
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