Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, fighting to keep his seat in November, hopes a part-time state resident will end up making the difference.
Mr. Nelson, a Democrat, has declared his race about one thing — “a referendum on Trump.”
In a plaintive plea to supporters last week, Mr. Nelson begged for donations, saying that they were “falling way short” of their fundraising goals and that Democrats must pony up if they want their party to regain control of the Senate and derail President Trump’s agenda.
The fundraising notices aren’t surprising, given the race is expected to break spending records. But the aggressively partisan stance is an unusual one for Mr. Nelson, 75, who across nearly three decades in Washington has established a reputation as an amiable and generally state-focused senator.
He faces his toughest re-election challenge yet this year after Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, jumped into the race — sending Mr. Nelson scrambling to try to nationalize the contest.
Analysts said it could be a mistake.
“I’ve said before if the Nelson campaign thinks it can win by running strictly against Trump, it will lose and I’m sticking with that prediction,” said Steven Vancore, a Democratic political consultant based in Tallahassee. “If they think they’ll ride some blue wave, that there’s some magic sauce, then they might as well invest their retirement accounts in lottery tickets.”
Mr. Vancore pointed to the 2016 election in which, for the first time, more Republicans than Democrats voted in Florida. While turnout is unlikely to equal that of a presidential run, Mr. Vancore said voter registration tallies he has reviewed in the Sunshine State show a Republican advantage.
“So where’s the blue wave?” he asked.
Currently, the Real Clear Politics polling average has Mr. Nelson holding a razor thin 2.2 percentage point lead, well within the margin of error.
While Mr. Nelson took 55 percent of the vote winning re-election in 2012, since then he has become Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat. The Republican winning streak includes, in addition to Mr. Scott, Mr. Trump winning the state in 2016 and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio cruising to reelection on the same ballot.
Mr. Scott, 65, won election in 2010 and re-election in 2014, both times narrowly. He is, though, regarded as having superb tactical campaigns.
Experts pointed to efforts already underway to pinpoint likely Republican voters in suburban areas where turnout in gubernatorial elections is often low. Given that roughly 70 percent of Florida voters in 2016 cast their ballots early or by mail, such moves by the Scott campaign now could pay handsome dividends in November.
The Scott campaign acknowledged spending at least $5 million already on television advertising, including a Spanish-language commercial, while outside groups have dropped another $3 million on his behalf.
In a state where elections are pricey, Mr. Scott reportedly has raised as much in the campaign’s first 3 months — $3.2 million — as Mr. Nelson raised in the first quarter of 2018. The Scott campaign’s first financing report is not due until after the 2nd quarter ends on June 30.
Asked if his campaign was in danger of falling well behind Mr. Scott’s efforts early, Mr. Nelson told a Florida newspaper he wasn’t taking it lightly and acknowledged he must “be smarter, faster, quicker.”
Enter the Trump factor.
Mr. Nelson calls Mr. Scott the president’s “handpicked” candidate, and Pete Mitchell, formerly Mr. Nelson’s chief-of-staff and now a senior adviser to the campaign, said the governor can hardly put much daylight between himself and Mr. Trump, given the two have been close for years and the governor is no stranger at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s private club in Palm Beach.
On the other hand, Mr. Trump’s approval rating in Florida is slightly higher than it is nationally.
While Mr. Nelson’s fundraising appeals focus on Mr. Trump, Mr. Mitchell insisted the campaign’s outreach to voters will be about more than the president.
“Bill has run every race just like he says, ‘like a jackrabbit,’ and he’s not running now on any single factor but on a record of always putting Florida first,” Mr. Mitchell said.
The Scott for Senate camp, though, said it’s waiting to see what other notes Mr. Nelson can sing beyond stoking anti-Trump sentiment.
“That seems to be his only message,” said Ryan Patmintra, communications director of Rick Scott for Senate. “But I suppose that’s what you get from a career politician who has no record of accomplishment to run on despite a half century in elected office.”