With early voting beginning Monday in some Florida counties, the Senate race there was jolted as Republican Gov. Rick Scott kept up the pressure on Sen. Bill Nelson’s thus-far unsubstantiated claims that Russian operatives have already compromised Florida elections.
In the hotly contested race, the Democratic senator’s comments seemed to dovetail with the narrative of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections — international shenanigans many in the U.S. intelligence community have concluded were real.
But Mr. Nelson’s pointed remarks triggered a storm of protest not only from his Republican challenger, Mr. Scott, but from other Florida officials, too.
Mr. Scott spent the weekend hammering Mr. Nelson for his claims last Tuesday that “Russians are in Florida’s elections records,” and that they had “already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about.”
The senator offered no specifics or evidence for his bombshell, and when pressed to do so demurred on the ground it was “classified.”
Since then, Mr. Scott’s campaign has repeatedly accused Mr. Nelson of either fabricating his accusation to play off inchoate fears of Russian election hacking, or breaking the law by revealing classified information.
Mr. Nelson’s office released a statement late Friday claiming the Scott campaign was seeking to exploit a serious situation for political gain, but other than that, the three-term senator has been so invisible that state media published a story Monday afternoon headlined, “Where is Bill Nelson?”
The Nelson campaign has not offered any information buttressing his charges, either in regards to its source or the specific counties allegedly affected, and late Monday referred questions about them back to his Washington office. However, the campaign disputed the idea the senator had gone underground in a close race, saying he had appearances in the state’s Panhandle region on Monday.
Early Monday evening, the Nelson campaign sent out another notice that the senator would make additional appearances Tuesday in northern Florida, but remained mute on the biggest topic roiling the race.
After Mr. Scott spent the past 72 hours ripping into Mr. Nelson’s vague charges on television and in campaign e-mail blasts, the National Republican Senate Committee jumped in Monday saying the 75-year-old senator “can’t hide forever and Floridians deserve an explanation now.”
Florida’s Republican Secretary of State Ken Detzner also continued to press for evidence, although a Monday deadline he set for more information from Washington appeared to pass without a response.
Mr. Detzner and other state officials have vociferously disputed Mr. Nelson’s claim, saying they know of no such penetrations of the state’s electoral security systems.
In a letter sent Friday to Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, Mr. Detzner said the allegations are without foundation.
“To the best of our knowledge and the knowledge of our federal partners, Florida’s voting systems and election databases remain secure, and there has been no intrusion of the Florida Voter Registration System and no reported breaches from the locally elected Supervisors of Elections,” Mr. Detzner wrote.
Some of Mr. Nelson’s colleagues have offered halfhearted support. North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, told Mr. Detzner in writing that the chances Russia would seek to subvert electoral processes in the U.S. was real and urging state officials to be diligent, but neither he nor Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who echoed that theme, offered any solid evidence Mr. Nelson’s startling charge was true.
Mr. Burr also recommended Florida officials work closely with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
It was that advice that prompted Mr. Detzner’s letter, although it was unclear if they responded by Monday as Mr. Detzner requested since that was the day early voting began in some Florida counties.
Earlier this year, Mr. Detzner had said the state could not avail itself of almost $20 million in federal funds to help combat potential cybersecurity attacks on its electoral systems because he couldn’t get legislative approval for it in time.
Mr. Scott promptly overruled the secretary, ordering him to request $19.2 million. It remains unclear, however, how much of that money has been spent and on what, with some state officials objecting to a provision that requires counties to return unspent funds to Tallahassee after November’s election.