Mr. Lucky vs. Connie’s kid 

The candidates may underwhelm, but the implications of Florida’s U.S. Senate race are huge.

The battle for control of the U.S. Senate could come down to Florida. Too bad nobody’s that excited about it.

It’s not just because the Bill Nelson-Connie Mack affair has been “overshadowed” by the presidential race. For Florida Democrats of a progressive bent, U.S. Sen. Nelson hardly sends a thrill up the spine. Nice guy. Great on the environment, they’ll concede. But way too quiet.

And the Fort Myers-based Congressman Mack has been fighting an uphill battle ever since Nelson went on the attack in early August with ads that defined him as a dilettante and a lightweight screw-up, with a resume that included Hooters, bar brawls and an abysmal record of 178 missed votes in the House.

Nelson is clearly playing this one for keeps. He was able to get those ads up early because he out-fundraised Mack by a 3-to-1 margin (though super PACS sympathetic to Mack have attempted to close the gap). And in a state dominated by Republicans in all high-level state and federal offices, his retention in Washington means everything for the Florida Democratic Party.

As for Mack, he thrashed his lesser-known GOP Senate opponents in the primary back in August after Republicans with higher profiles — Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, former interim U.S Senator George LeMieux — all waved the white flag and departed the race before the primary. It wasn’t any particular legislation, or Mack’s powerful oratory, that cleared the field. No, it’s all about the power of branding, as his name is exactly the same as that of his father, the two-term U.S. Senator from Florida (1988-2000).

“There’s no luckier politician in America than Bill Nelson,” proclaims former USFSP Political Science Professor Darryl Paulson, repeating a standard line that Republicans have used about the venerable legislator for years. That’s in part because the former state legislator rarely faced serious competition in his various runs for political office, with the exception of 1990, when he lost the Democratic primary for governor at the age of 48 to Lawton Chiles.

But four years later he was back in Tallahassee, elected to the Florida Cabinet as state treasurer.

In 2000 he ran against the charismatically challenged Bill McCollum and won entry to the U.S. Senate. With the continued right-wing tilt of the state, he was considered to be extremely vulnerable in 2006, but received a gift in the form of then Sarasota Congresswoman Katherine Harris winning the GOP nomination. Harris’ floundering candidacy led to mass defections among her campaign staff and open requests by Jeb Bush and Karl Rove for other Republicans to get in the race. They didn’t.

UCF Political Science Professor Aubrey Jewett says that Mack has been a fairly weak candidate, but “not Katherine Harris weak.” He says that one thing Harris had that Mack lacks is some “fire in the belly.”

And what about Nelson? Environmental groups not just in Florida but nationally herald him as a leader. Earlier this year the League of Conservation Voters gave him a 100 percent ranking, in part for his efforts to oppose four different bills that sought to weaken the Clean Air Act. He also fought to obtain video from BP so that scientists could calculate the flow of oil from the 2010 spill.

On the campaign stump (and in the candidates’ debate earlier this month), Mack hit Nelson as a “lockstep liberal” who votes consistently with President Obama. It’s true that on the major pieces of legislation promulgated by Obama — the stimulus, health care reform and the financial reform bill known simply as “Dodd-Frank” — Nelson was with Obama.

Susan Smith, the head of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, acknowledges Nelson’s lack of pizzazz, but says, “I think people are surprised when they look at his record that he votes as well as he does on our issues.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn considers Nelson to be in the tradition of other successful Democrats, mentioning former Senator Bob Graham and former Tampa Congressman Jim Davis. “He is where most Floridians are, and that’s somewhere in the center. He’s consistent, he doesn’t take wild positions on issues, he’s very mainstream, very cerebral and he’s thoughtful, and I think that’s where most Floridians are.”

The two candidates have debated only one time this fall, much to Mack’s consternation. In Tampa last week he told CL that he had accepted invitations to no fewer than eight debates, and accused Nelson of ducking him.

“He doesn’t want to debate. I think everybody saw in the last debate why.”

That might be the case, though Nelson isn’t talking about it — at least not to CL, in any case. (We were told to send questions via email to the senator. We never received his answers.)

But there’s no doubt the Democratic incumbent was a bit flummoxed, as every charge he used in his cannon of material was flung back in his face at that debate. Mack accused Nelson of voting to raise taxes 150 times, putting cows on his family land to avoid paying property taxes, and gutting Medicare to pay for “Obamacare.”

Nelson denied all of the charges, saying, “Congressman, you’re repeating the same lines over and over.” Later, he channeled Ronald Reagan circa 1980, twice saying to Mack, “There you go again.”

Mack’s proposed solution to the country’s debt problem has been his “Penny Plan” that would radically reduce spending and balance the budget by cutting $7.5 trillion over 10 years. Under the plan, if Congress and the president couldn’t decide on what to cut, it would automatically cut spending across the board, beginning in 2013. The plan would balance the budget somewhere between 2017 and 2019.

Senator Nelson has said Mack’s proposal would cut more than $200 billion in Medicare, $1 trillion in Social Security and $3 trillion in defense.

Mack also wants to defund all U.S. spending on the United Nations, saying, “The United Nations in my opinion is an organization that doesn’t have the ideals, principles and values that we share here in the U.S.” In particular, Mack has taken exception at the prospect of the U.N. sending workers to monitor the polls on Election Day.

“It’s shameful,” he said.

Last week, the RealClearPolitics poll of polls showed Nelson up by over 5 percentage points over Mack. But former Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas says that in 2004, GOP Senate candidate Mel Martinez was in similar straits against Democrat Betty Castor.

“If it’s within three points, I think Connie could win… he still needs to get a point or two closer, but I think based on outside support, he could do it.”

Mack himself has said that Mitt Romney’s fortunes in Florida could be the decisive factor in his race. As the GOP standard-bearer’s chances have certainly bloomed in recent weeks, Mack can only hope that his prediction comes true.


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