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Florida Gov. Rick Scott Formally Ousts Democrat Bill Nelson After Recounts

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has officially won his third statewide race by his narrowest margin yet ― barely one-tenth of a percentage point ― giving Republicans their fourth takeaway from Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

Both a machine recount and a manual recount were required under Florida law because of the closeness of the tally, but neither changed the final count appreciably, ending Democrat Bill Nelson’s last hopes of winning a fourth six-year term. Nelson conceded to Scott in a phone call Sunday afternoon.

Scott, 65, joins Marco Rubio in January to give the state two Republican senators for the first time since Reconstruction.

Scott’s win ― anticipated since the final provisional ballots were counted last week and the margin remained over 12,000 ― means Republicans were successful in ousting Democratic senators in four states carried by President Donald Trump in 2016: Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Nelson in Florida.

But the GOP failed to beat Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan and Jon Tester in Montana ― Democrats from six other states that Trump carried in 2016 whom he repeatedly campaigned against.

Further, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, and Republicans lost the seat held by Jeff Flake, who retired, to Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, giving Democrats two pickups. The result is a net gain of just two seats for Republicans despite the most promising Senate map for them in decades.

Nelson, 76, has been in the Senate 18 years following six years as the state’s insurance commissioner and, before that, 12 years in the House as a congressman from the Space Coast.

Scott is wrapping up his second term as Florida’s chief executive and could not seek a third because of term limits. Scott’s two previous election victories for governor had also been squeakers ― 1.1 percentage points each time.

His win means Florida has thrice elected to statewide office the man who, in the 1990s, ran a for-profit hospital chain that agreed to pay $1.7 billion in fines for systematically defrauding Medicare, Medicaid and veterans’ health programs. Scott invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate oneself 75 times during a deposition in a related civil trial about his role in the fraud committed by Columbia/HCA.

During Scott’s first run for governor in 2010, both his Republican opponent in the primary and Democratic nominee Alex Sink used that history in negative ads against him. But Scott was willing to spend freely from his personal fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars and managed to eke out narrow wins against both.

In 2014, Scott barely won re-election against Charlie Crist, who had been the Republican governor before Scott but later became a Democrat.

In fact, Scott’s popularity only broke 50 percent on a consistent basis in 2017, after his generally well-regarded handling of Hurricane Irma. That improvement in his polling numbers, in addition to his continued willingness to spend heavily on his own campaigns, made national Republicans believe that Scott had a good chance of defeating Nelson, whose two previous re-elections had been against weak opponents.

All that, though, was before this summer, when red tide worsened along the southwest coast of Florida and blooms of thick, blue-green algae from Lake Okeechobee began choking Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico and Stuart on the Atlantic Ocean. When the freshwater algae hit saltwater at the coast, they die, releasing toxins into the water and air ― and, scientists believe, providing additional food for the naturally occurring red tide bacteria. The result has been millions of dead fish, sea turtles, dolphins and manatees, with their carcasses washing up on beaches and adding to the already-acrid stench of red tide toxins.

Many environmentalists blamed Scott for the calamity. He had slashed budgets for the agencies responsible for safeguarding the water quality in Lake Okeechobee and eased enforcement efforts against polluters.

Scott faced protests late this summer at campaign stops in Fort Myers and Venice ― both Republican strongholds. He largely refrained from coastal campaign visits as the red tide spread up Florida’s eastern coast, and then he stopped campaigning altogether after Hurricane Michael struck the Panhandle in early October.

However, Scott had the advantage of running for the Senate as a sitting governor. Governors of a state are well known to voters and are able to take credit for day-to-day accomplishments, while senators have nowhere near that level of visibility. The last incumbent senator to lose an election in Florida, in fact, was also defeated by a sitting governor: Democratic Gov. Bob Graham ousted Republican Sen. Paula Hawkins in 1986.

In the end, the advantage of that bully pulpit combined with the tens of millions of Scott’s own dollars he put into his race was enough to win.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Democrats gained the seat previously held by late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Democrats picked up the Arizona seat held by GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, who did not seek re-election. 

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