Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson knows he is a big target for Republicans this fall.
But first the veteran politician must clear what looks like an easy Democratic primary hurdle in challenger Glenn Burkett, a 60-year-old health consultant from Naples.
Nelson, who has held public office in Florida almost continuously since 1972, is seeking his third term in the U.S. Senate.
“I take any election very seriously,” Nelson said. “But it does seem that there’s been so much attention paid to the presidential election, that there’s not much left over for the Senate primaries.”
Nelson, 69, is a generally low-profile, reliable Democratic vote in a Senate where his party clings to a 53-47 seat advantage that Republicans hope to erase in November.
He’s taken Florida-friendly positions, advocating Everglades restoration and payments of coastal claims stemming from the 2010 BP oil spill.
Nelson backed President Obama on federal stimulus spending, the health care overhaul and just last week sided with the White House in a Senate vote to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class while ending them for more affluent households. Republicans immediately blasted Nelson for voting to increase taxes that they say will hurt small businesses in a slow economy.
But Nelson can be combative, too. He has blasted Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott for rejecting the health care law’s provision allowing states to expand Medicaid coverage for poor, elderly and disabled residents. Nelson also has attacked Scott and Republicans legislators for enacting tougher voter laws.
In response, Mack has tarred Nelson and Obama as “lockstep liberals,” framing an anticipated fall campaign between two rivals in a race polls show appears a toss-up.
The presidential race in Florida, the nation’s largest battleground contest, is almost certain to play a big role in determining how the Senate race plays out.
Burkett, Nelson’s Aug. 14 primary opponent, is making his second run for Senate, having finished third in the Democratic primary two years ago. He also ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006.
Burkett doesn’t plan to air campaign ads, decrying them as a “waste of money.” He recommends that anyone wishing to donate instead contribute toward feeding the hungry in Florida.
Burkett, though, said his campaign push for Americans to adopt healthy eating, lifestyle and exercise habits makes him an ideal candidate for current times.
“My message coincides exactly with the new health care law,” Burkett said. “We have to take responsibility for our own health.”
Burkett said that if each person’s healthy habits improve, the cost of Medicare, Medicaid and other big-ticket federal programs will decline, helping bring the budget back into balance. He supports immigration, private-industry space ventures and a strong national defense.
While he may not look like much of a threat to Nelson – who has $10 million in campaign cash-on-hand — Burkett does fire off criticism likely to grow louder this fall.
“He’s a career politician,” Burkett said of his rival. “I met him and was considering not running against him. But I was so disappointed.”
Mack and other Republicans have been using Nelson’s long history in Florida public life against him, saying that it’s time to end a career that began the same year George McGovern was on the presidential ballot against Richard Nixon.
Nelson has held office through myriad changes in Florida. But perhaps the most challenging has been the state’s shift from Democratic dominance to one where he stands as the sole Democrat holding statewide office.
Nelson speaks cautiously. He rarely seeks the spotlight. And he endures.
Nelson’s Senate work includes serving on the budget, finance and intelligence committees. He’s chairman of the Science and Space subcommittee, an homage to his Space Coast roots and is a member of the Aging Committee, always a good role for a Florida politician.
“The Florida electorate has a mind of its own,” Nelson said.
“The first year I was elected to the state House, my district voted 75 percent for Nixon over McGovern and I got 75 percent of the vote, too,” he said. “That was an example of the electorate choosing a candidate and not just voting party label.”
While he’s being pilloried as a liberal, Nelson prefers to label himself a centrist. He explains away criticism of his lack of a national profile as stemming from his heavy focus on back-home issues.
Still, even with a no-sweat primary facing him, Nelson is wary of saying too much.
Asked if his pre-Aug. 14 strategy would include a round of statewide television advertising to reintroduce himself to voters, Nelson ducked. “That’s campaign strategy, and I can’t telegraph that to you or my opponent,” Nelson said.