Florida Sen. Bill Nelson styles himself as “a moderate voice on major issues,” but his asserted independence is being questioned as the Democrat seeks a fourth term this November.
All sides agree he now faces his biggest re-election challenge in Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who says Mr. Nelson’s reputation as a centrist rests on ancient legislative history, and he’s actually become just another liberal reinforcement for Democratic leaders in Washington.
The numbers bear out some of that shift.
While Mr. Nelson was in the House from 1979 to 1991, he earned the centrist label, voting with fellow Democrats just 49 percent of the time in his early years and 62 percent of the time during the Reagan ‘80s.
But since becoming a senator in 2001, he’s moved in close step with the Democratic congressional leadership, voting the party line more than 92 percent of the time during the Obama administration, according to Congressional Quarterly.
The Nelson campaign did not respond to questions about the shift, which puts him firmly in under the Charles E. Schumer-Nancy Pelosi umbrella of congressional Democratic Party leadership.
Mr. Scott’s campaign, though, has begun aggressively highlighting that gulf between image and record.
“His voting record speaks for itself,” said Ryan Patmintra, communications director for Mr. Scott’s campaign. “Bill Nelson parades around as a self-proclaimed moderate, then heads to D.C. and votes lockstep with the Democrat Party. Floridians will ultimately measure him by his actions, not his rhetoric.”
On the campaign trail, Mr. Nelson doesn’t trumpet the names of his fellow Democrats, but he has tried to position himself as part of the “resistance” to Mr. Trump. He’s opposed Mr. Trump’s nominees for administration posts in the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Interior, as well as agencies like NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Unlike the Democratic leadership, though, Mr. Nelson has voted to confirm an occasional judge nominated by Mr. Trump. He also broke with top Democrats last month to confirm Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, and then again last week in backing Gina Haspel to be CIA director.
In 2016, Mr. Nelson made a show of opposing Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch’s nomination. Republicans have zeroed in on that stance because it clashed with Mr. Nelson’s 2006 vote to confirm Mr. Gorsuch to a federal appeals court, and even supporters saw Mr. Nelson’s flip-flop as a move to shore up his left flank in this year’s tough re-election bid.
Mr. Nelson has 10 laws to his name over his nearly 30 years in Congress — 12 years as a member of the House and the rest as a senator. His bills range from the Truth in Caller ID Act to legislation on Florida land ownership rules.
But his three-decade career has been generally low-profile, with his biggest national headlines coming on issues related to space. His 1986 trip in the space shuttle may play well in Florida, NASA’s famous launch pad, but it also is the brunt of conservative jokes that “a free ride in space” is Nelson’s sole congressional achievement.
Advocacy groups’ scorecards track Mr. Nelson’s trajectory from centrist to party stalwart.
The American Conservative Union, for instance, has Mr. Nelson’s lifetime figure at 29.62, a mark far higher than that possessed by Mr. Schumer, Democrats’ floor leader in the Senate.
But Mr. Nelson’s figure seems inflated by higher scores between 2001 and 2006, during his first term as senator. Since 2013, Mr. Nelson has scored no higher than 4, including scores of zero in 2014 and 2015.
Political veterans in the Sunshine State say the Florida battlefield requires a candidate to lock up his base.
“Obviously Congress itself has become more partisan, making it increasingly difficult to not toe the party line,” said Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida and a respected analyst of state politics. “But with our statewide races so closely contested that they are within 1 percent of each other, Nelson can’t afford to lose any of his base and he has to make sure it’s motivated.”
That’s left the senator chasing voters who have been energized by the likes of fellow Democratic Caucus member Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont. And Democrats have become especially riven by identity politics in Florida, Ms. MacManus noted.
Mr. Nelson needs Democrats unified as he faces a well-financed and experienced opponent in Mr. Scott, who has already unleashed several anti-Nelson media blitzes. This week that included television ads the campaign calls “Party Line,” consisting of Florida voters expressing dismay at what they describe as Mr. Nelson’s increasingly predictable vote for Democrats’ agenda.
While Mr. Nelson is already trying to tar Mr. Scott as a flip-flopper for his positions on guns and other issues, the idea a candidate can think or vote independently may prove attractive to an electorate of which more than a quarter of registered voters do not identify with either major party.
Mr. Nelson leads Mr. Scott by a fractional 2.2 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics polling average, which is well within the margin of error. Analysts rank the race a toss up.