Three-term Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) conceded to Gov. Rick Scott (R) Sunday after a bitter and drawn-out campaign to retain his seat, acknowledging that preliminary results from a manual statewide recount left him with no path to victory.
Although results of the race are not due to be certified until Tuesday, Nelson said in remarks posted on Twitter that things had worked out “a little differently” from the way he and his wife had hoped. He went on to issue a call for bipartisanship in an era of brutally divisive politics.
“We have to move beyond a politics that aims not just to defeat but to destroy — where truth is threatened as disposable, where falsehoods abound and that the free press is assaulted as the enemy of the people,” Nelson said. “There has been a gathering darkness in our politics in recent years.”
Scott’s victory boosts the Republican Senate majority to 52, with a final seat in Mississippi due to be decided in a Nov. 27 runoff. In a statement, Scott thanked Nelson for his service.
“Now the campaign truly is behind us, and that’s where we need to leave it,” Scott said in a statement. “We must do what Americans have always done: come together for the good of our state and our country.”
Going into the recount, Nelson trailed Scott by more than 12,000 votes, and his campaign had hoped a reexamination of ballots — particularly in heavily Democratic Broward County — would help him close the gap. But when the recount ended at midday Sunday, Scott still led Nelson by 10,033 votes out of more than 8 million cast, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
Scott’s razor-thin victory leaves Florida, the nation’s third-most-populous state, with two Republican senators for the first time since the Reconstruction era immediately after the Civil War. While Republicans retain an advantage among Florida’s older white retirees, the state’s younger, nonwhite population is surging, with many of those Democratic-leaning people now reaching voting age.
“People are not happy that the blue wave hit the rest of the country and missed Florida,” Jacob Sanders, a Democratic consultant in St. Lucie County, told The Washington Post in anticipation of a Nelson defeat. “People are looking around and saying, ‘What happened?’ The recount was a really good way to make people stop asking. There’s going to be a reckoning now.”
The battle between Scott and Nelson was among the most closely watched Senate races in the country. Scrutiny intensified after Election Day as Scott’s lead narrowed and the race headed toward a recount. Together, the Nelson and Scott campaigns racked up at least 10 lawsuits trying to gain legal advantage. Protesters descended on county election offices, where officials scrambled to tally ballots in scenes reminiscent of the 2000 presidential recount battle between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.
This time, Republicans also sought to cast doubt on the validity of the results, with President Trump making unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud and arguing the recount should halt, even though it was mandated by state law. A machine recount that preceded the hand recount did settle Florida’s closely watched gubernatorial race, with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) conceding Saturday to Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.).
On Sunday, Trump congratulated Scott via tweet. “From day one Rick Scott never wavered,” he wrote. “He was a great Governor and will be even a greater Senator in representing the People of Florida. Congratulations to Rick on having waged such a courageous and successful campaign!”
As Nelson’s campaign was receiving results of the manual recount, it was also absorbing losses in three lawsuits filed by Democrats and voting rights advocates that could have benefited his campaign. Democrats lost what may have been Nelson’s final legal recourse on Friday when a federal judge denied a request to accept some mail-in ballots received after Election Day.
A fifth-generation Floridian, Nelson, 76, grew up in Melbourne, Fla., along what would become known as the Space Coast after the construction of the John F. Kennedy Space Center. He trained as a lawyer and entered politics in 1972 with a successful bid for a seat in the state House. Nelson served six years there, then moved to Congress, carving out a role as a leader on space issues. In 1986, as part of a NASA program to bring nonprofessional astronauts to space, he joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia and spent six days in orbit.
Nelson lost a race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1990. But he won his next attempt at statewide office, becoming the state treasurer and insurance commissioner in 1994. He held that post until 2000, when he successfully ran for the U.S. Senate, where he compiled a record as one of the most moderate members of the Democratic caucus.
But he also emerged as a vocal critic of the Trump administration, calling out its response to the disaster that Hurricane Maria wrought in Puerto Rico and criticizing its immigration and environmental policies.
Of the five senators who lost their reelection bids, Nelson takes with him the longest résumé in public life.
“It’s been a rewarding journey,” Nelson said Sunday, “as well as a very humbling experience.”
Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.