Sen. Bill Nelson heads into his re-election bid this year with the backing of the Florida chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Gov. Rick Scott, his Republican opponent, counters with the backing of 55 of his state’s 67 sheriffs and the endorsement of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, which publicly favored a Senate candidate for the first time ever last month.
In a state familiar with disasters, whether from man or Mother Nature, public safety officials are prominent figures, so these endorsements could play significant roles.
The two camps have traded barbs in recent weeks about who has been the better friend to first responders.
The Nelson campaign accused Mr. Scott of trying to steer lucrative public pension work to campaign contributors and said he undermined a pay raise for firefighters in 2015.
“Rick Scott, as governor, has played politics with the pensions of public employees, placing his donors above the best interest of first responders in giving pension business to contributors,” Mr. Nelson’s campaign said when announcing the firefighters’ support.
The Scott campaign counters with a list of steps he has taken as Florida’s chief executive that put more money into the pockets of law enforcement and public safety officials, including 2017 pay raises for correctional officers and “sworn state law enforcement officers,” as well as a 2018 budget that included a $2,500 raise for all Florida Forest Service firefighters.
Some sheriffs say their support for Mr. Scott stems in part from his superior record as a friend of law enforcement compared with his recent Republican predecessors in Tallahassee, Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush.
“It isn’t just platitudes. Gov. Scott has been there to back good laws and stood in opposition to laws that aren’t,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
He pointed to laws to hold prolific juvenile criminals “more accountable” and minimum mandatory sentences for opioid dealers. Mr. Scott backed that measure in the face of strong opposition because “he recognized law enforcement needed that tool.”
Mr. Gualtieri, who chairs a commission looking into the February shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, said he hasn’t always seen eye to eye with the governor but praised Mr. Scott for his accomplishments and public profile in events such as hurricanes.
“You don’t always agree, but you know he’ll listen and that he’s available,” Mr. Gualtieri said. “I’ve been in law enforcement for 38 years, and I don’t think we’ve ever seen a governor in Florida who was more involved and engaged in public safety issues and issues affecting first responders.”
The firefighters say that honor goes to the senator, whom they call a stalwart supporter of first responder needs.
“Sen. Nelson has always been extremely supportive of our issues, including protecting our pensions and health care,” said Walter Dix, vice president of the IAFF’s 12th District, which covers Florida, the Carolinas, Georgia and the Caribbean. “He has also always supported legislation to fund studies regarding firefighters’ health, as well as grant programs that have provided equipment — trucks, breathing apparatus, helmets — he’s helped a lot of cities in Florida get these grants.”
Mr. Dix, whose Florida branch comprises some 26,000 firefighters and emergency medical service personnel, dismissed the sheriffs’ backing for Mr. Scott as support from a managerial level in law enforcement rather than the rank and file. He and some other political observers also noted that sheriffs are political animals and thus more prone to choose sides along partisan lines.
Mr. Scott’s supporters say Mr. Dix represents a union that traditionally supports Democratic candidates.
Susan MacManus, a governmental affairs professor at the University of Southern Florida who is widely regarded as one of the state’s top political analysts, said the sheriffs have been considerably more active than usual behind Mr. Scott’s candidacy, suggesting a high level of support.
In a purple state, every little bit can help, she said. Polling trends clearly favor Mr. Scott, according to the RealClearPolitics average. From October through April, Mr. Nelson led in eight of the 10 polls RCP cites. Now, Mr. Scott leads by an average of 4 points in the three of five polls that comprise the average.
Mr. Nelson’s lead in the other two polls leaves Mr. Scott with a barely discernible 0.8 percentage-point edge, and the race remains solidly in the toss-up column with all prognosticators.
Ms. MacManus noted that the past two presidential elections and both of Mr. Scott’s successful gubernatorial bids came down to a 1-point difference in Florida.
“That’s four in a row, and it’s looking like it will be five,” Ms. MacManus said.