Bill Nelson for governor? Maybe.

April 29, 2013

"I have no intention of running for governor," Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) declared Friday morning on MSNBC.

That sounds like a no, but it's hardly a Sherman-esque statement. And for several reasons, the book on Nelson's gubernatorial ambitions shouldn't be closed just yet.


Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). ( (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

There are two overarching questions that need to be answered when it comes to judging how likely it is that Nelson will run: 1) Does he want to? And 2) Is he getting encouragement from within his party to make a bid?

The answer to the second question is yes. (More on the first question in a moment.)

"I have not talked to Sen. Nelson about it, but I think there is growing resolve to draft him to run among many Floridians, not just Democrats," said former congressman Jim Davis, a Nelson supporter and himself a candidate for governor in 2006.

The man who defeated Davis for the state's top job is the other pol who keeps popping up as a likely challenger to Scott: Charlie Crist. Crist was a Republican governor before he failed in his bid to join the Senate in 2010. Last year, he became a Democrat, and has won a lot of good will from much of the party faithful after he campaigned vigorously for President Obama.

Most of what is driving the movement to draft Nelson, Democrats and Republicans say, is simply enthusiasm for the senator, and the desire to defeat Gov. Rick Scott (R), one of the country's most vulnerable incumbents. But part of it also appears to involve some skepticism about Crist.

"I know that a lot of my Democrat donor friends in Florida are very nervous about the prospect of Charlie Crist," said veteran Republican strategist Ana Navarro, who calls herself a friend of Nelson's.

Steven Schale, Obama’s 2008 Florida state director and a senior adviser to his campaign there in 2012, said if an anti-Crist bent is a factor in the effort to recruit Nelson to run, it's not the biggest one. “I don’t view it in the light of people desperate for someone who is not Charlie Crist," said Schale, who argued that Nelson's appeal is mainly driving the push to get him to run.

Because Florida is such a populous state with so many expensive media markets, there are major barriers to entry for aspiring statewide candidates who don't have already high name recognition or the personal fortune necessary to buy that name recognition, a la Scott in 2010.

And that means the list of Democrats capable of winning the nomination is short. Right now, it's really just Crist, Nelson, and 2010 nominee Alex Sink, who recently said she was leaning against running.

The most important question is whether Nelson wants to run. Democrats and Republicans say they take Nelson at his word when he says he has no interest in running.

"I think he is probably thinking about it because people he cares about [are saying] he should think about it," said Democrat Den Gelber, who worked with Crist as state House minority leader, and is also considering running for governor.

It's hard to imagine Crist -- or any other serious Democrat -- taking on Nelson if he does run. The prospect of a clear field might be enticing for the senator. And given Scott's unpopularity, he would be a heavy favorite in the general election.

The counterargument is that Nelson, fresh off reelection, seems enthusiastic about his work in the Senate, and stands to increase his seniority amid a wave of Democratic retirements in the upper chamber.

But, that doesn't mean he can't be swayed to go back home. And considering that Nelson would not have to resign his Senate seat to run under Florida law, the worst-case scenario does not look all that bad in the grand scheme of things.

"I'm not sure that he couldn't be talked into it by large donors and Democrat leadership," said Navarro.

Stay tuned.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan | April 29, 2013