Correction: When we published, it appeared Scott had won, according to a call from Decision Desk and other outlets, but as votes continue to be tallied, it appears a recount is possible.
Republican Rick Scott, running for Senate after two terms as Florida governor, beat Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson in 2018’s most expensive Senate race, boosting the GOP and expanding their Senate majority. The vote remains close, with less than a percentage point of difference between the two.
Scott used a huge amount of campaign cash — much of it his own — and his position as a Washington outsider to beat Nelson, a relatively popular incumbent who nevertheless failed to inspire much excitement in a campaign year when Democrats were energized in many races across the country. Scott’s spending advantage helped him build an early polling lead, and Nelson was never quite able to close the gap.
Nelson was one of 10 Senate Democrats running for reelection in a state Donald Trump won in 2016. Trump loomed large over the race in Florida: Scott had initially associated himself closely with the president but later tried to put some distance between them on issues like Puerto Rico, where the president suggested that the death toll after Hurricane Maria had been exaggerated.
Scott portrayed Nelson as out of touch, a longtime senator with little to show for his years in office. Nelson, who has remained relatively popular and mostly avoids the partisan fray in Washington, countered by linking Scott as closely as possible with Trump and hitting the familiar points in his biography, such as his flight to space.
But Florida has retained a relatively high opinion of Trump since his inauguration, at least compared to other swing states. Scott ran on his record from his two terms as governor and the state’s improving economy, touting more than 1 million jobs added since he took over. That proved to be a winning combination.
Scott first ran for office emphasizing his opposition to Obamacare, but he tried in 2018, like many other Republican candidates across the country, to claim that he also still wanted to keep the law’s preexisting conditions protections. Nelson and outside Democratic groups hammered Scott for his prior support for repeal, but Florida is one of several states where health care didn’t seem to hurt the Republican candidates as much as the party feared.
The Parkland high school shooting also mobilized young voters in the state who rallied for more restrictions on gun ownership. Scott earned bipartisan plaudits for his response to the shooting, pushing through legislation that the National Rifle Association opposed, but he and Nelson still clashed over how much to clamp down on guns.
The hurricane in Puerto Rico also played a central role in the campaign after tens of thousands of the island’s residents relocated to Florida to escape the damage. Scott was tripped up after Trump claimed that the media and the Democrats were unfairly attacking him with an inflated number of deaths, a claim that Scott was forced to distance himself from.
In the end, though, that wasn’t enough to set Scott back — and his victory is the latest signal that Florida has turned a darker shade of red in the Trump era.