Florida's GOP Governor to Challenge Democratic Senator Nelson

(Bloomberg) -- Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott said he’s running for the U.S. Senate, challenging third-term Democrat Bill Nelson in a showdown that’s likely to be one of the year’s most expensive and bruising fights.

Scott, a former health-care executive, is barred from seeking a third term as governor and has been eyeing a bid for the Republican Senate nomination for more than a year.

“I’m going to run for the U.S. Senate representing the great state of Florida,” Scott said Monday on Facebook Live. “We’re going to do the exact same thing we’re doing in Florida. We’re going to turn around the national economy. We’re going to make sure Washington works for us.”

Florida's GOP Governor to Challenge Democratic Senator Nelson

His decision is a boost for Republicans’ drive to maintain their narrow 51-49 control of the Senate. Nelson is one of 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election in states that President Donald Trump won in 2016, and Scott’s entry into the race makes Nelson one of the most vulnerable members of his party in the chamber.

Trump carried Florida by a single percentage point in 2016, a razor’s-edge victory that hints at the battle ahead for the two Senate contenders. Early polls on a head-to-head matchup between the two have shown Nelson leading by a percentage point or two.

Scott’s candidacy will force Democrats to spend more money in Florida, potentially leaving less for races in three states where they have the best chance to pick up seats: Tennessee, Arizona and Nevada.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said it will be drawing clear contrasts between Scott and Nelson on economic issues.

Scott’s record “is a story voters of every political persuasion will reject: lost jobs, low wages and higher health-care costs for hardworking families -- while using his position as governor to make himself richer,” David Bergstein, a DSCC spokesman, said in a statement. “The contrast couldn’t be clearer between a dishonest, self-serving politician like Scott and a leader like Senator Nelson who always puts Florida first.”

New Gun Law

Scott’s national profile was elevated as he dealt with the aftermath of February’s deadly mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school that killed 17 students and faculty. He made a rare break with the National Rifle Association by signing legislation ending firearms sales for anyone under the age of 21 and banning "bump" stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire more quickly.

The move risks driving a wedge between Scott and Florida’s Republican base, though it also could blunt any advantage Nelson -- a supporter of stronger gun controls -- might have with centrist voters.

Scott won his first term as Florida governor in 2010 with just 49 percent of the vote, and his 2014 re-election with 48 percent in a race with multiple third-party challengers.

A millionaire known for pouring his own funds into his races, he also has met with GOP donors in recent months. In his 2014 race against Democrat and former governor Charlie Crist, Scott provided $12 million for a TV ad blitz near the end of the close contest.

Scott, 65, was a co-founder of Columbia Hospital Corp., which after a 1994 merger became Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. He was forced out of his chief executive officer position in 1997 amid a federal probe into Medicare and Medicaid overbilling. While Scott wasn’t charged with a crime, the company, in 2000 and 2002 settlements, pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges and paid $1.7 billion in fines.

Scott, in a separate civil suit related to Columbia/HCA, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 75 times rather than answer questions. He later became a venture capitalist before entering politics.

Only Democrat

Nelson is the only remaining Democrat in statewide elective office in Florida. He’s also the only Democratic U.S. senator from the deep South besides Doug Jones, the Democrat who won a special election for an Alabama Senate seat in December.

Nelson has been active on issues including the elderly, global warming, health care, free trade, the mosquito-borne Zika virus and disaster assistance after last summer’s storms. He’s the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and also serves on the Senate Finance and Armed Services panels.

Nelson, 75, defeated Republican Bill McCollum in 2000 and easily won re-election over Katherine Harris in 2006 and Connie Mack in 2012. He earlier served six terms in the U.S. House.

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