TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida political icon who first arrived on Capitol Hill in the decades when Democrats dominated this presidential battleground state, conceded his bitterly close re-election bid to Republican Rick Scott on Sunday, ceding a razor-thin race to the outgoing governor after a bruising recount.
Nelson gave up his quest after days of acrimony and tense recounting leading to a midday Sunday deadline for Florida’s counties to turn in their official results. Florida will not officially certify the final totals until Tuesday, but the totals showed Nelson trailing Scott by slightly more than 10,000 votes.
“It has been a rewarding journey as well as a very humbling experience,” Nelson said in a videotaped statement. “I was not victorious in this race but I still wish to strongly re-affirm the cause for which we fought: A public office is a public trust.”
The close of nearly two weeks of high political drama in the presidential swing state likely spelled the end of the political career of the 76-year-old Nelson. First elected to Congress 40 years ago, Nelson had been a Democratic survivor in an era when Republicans swept to power in Florida in the ’90s. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000 and was making his fourth attempt at re-election.
Nelson, a Florida native with a distinct twang, was defeated by Scott, a multimillionaire businessman and relative newcomer to the state who had been urged to run by President Donald Trump. A Scott victory will help Republicans boost their majority in the U.S. Senate.
This marked the third time Scott, who did not jump into politics until eight years ago, has barely edged a Democratic opponent.
Scott ran a harsh campaign against Nelson, calling him ineffective and out-of-touch. Amid the recount, Scott suggested that some county election officials were allowing fraud to occur.
“Now the campaign truly is behind us, and that’s where we need to leave it,” Scott said in a statement soon after official results were posted. “We must do what Americans have always done: come together for the good of our state and our country. My focus will not be on looking backward, but on doing exactly what I ran on: making Washington work.”
Trump congratulated Scott on Twitter: “From day one Rick Scott never wavered. 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!”
Nelson was seen as a moderate who rarely made waves or earned much national exposure as he focused on Florida-specific issues. One of his more notable moments came when he flew on Space Shuttle Columbia while serving in Congress.
His only other election loss was in 1990 when he lost a Democratic primary for governor to eventual winner Lawton Chiles.
Mac Stipanovich, a Republican strategist who once called Nelson an “empty suit,” said he wasn’t sure if Nelson would have a legacy like other well-known Florida Democrats such as Chiles and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. He called Nelson “something of a cipher” and said it was “remarkable how little space he occupies after such a long period of public service.”
But Stipanovich also said Nelson doesn’t fit in today’s highly polarized political environment.
“I believe Bill Nelson is a first rate human being and is a moderate in an age where there is no moderation,” said Stipanovich. “There’s much to regret about people like him leaving the public arena. We’re not better for all of this anger and polarization and Nelson is the antithesis of it.”
After it became clear the Senate race would head to a legally required recount, Nelson and Democrats filed several lawsuits that challenged everything from Scott’s authority over the state’s election division to deadlines for mail-in ballots.
The Nelson campaign managed to secure only one win in court. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker gave voters until 5 p.m. on Saturday to fix their ballots if they haven’t been counted because of mismatched signatures. Nearly 5,700 ballots were rejected because signatures on ballot envelopes did not match signatures on file with election officials.
The tense and bumpy recount followed an equally negative campaign. While the two candidates disagreed on key issues, they focused primarily on character and competence. Scott repeatedly bashed Nelson through TV ads paid for by more than $60 million of his own money, while Nelson branded Scott as a Trump follower who had used the governor’s office to pad his wealth.
It was seen as one of the marquee races of the midterm elections. But it was soon overshadowed by the governor’s race: a vitriolic competition between Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum that became a proxy battle between Trump and his Democratic opponents.
Scott and Nelson disagreed on issues ranging from gun control to environmental policy to health care. Nelson was a strong supporter of the federal health care overhaul pushed into law by President Barack Obama, while Scott had called for the law’s repeal and replacement.