Despite current projections that the Democrats will manage to win back the House of Representatives and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly acknowledging he’s worried about losing a Senate race in the Republican stronghold of Tennessee, Florida’s three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is in the fight of his life for re-election this year against Gov. Rick Scott.
Whether or not the moderate, low-key Nelson wins re-election over his well-monied, more visible opponent will likely depend on Democratic enthusiasm. In that respect, the 75-year old Nelson was perhaps given a gift when Florida Democrats picked 39-year old Andrew Gillum, the progressive mayor of Tallahassee, as their nominee for governor. Gillum would also be the first black governor of the state if elected.
In an interview with the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times published on Tuesday, Nelson acknowledged that there’s a lot of enthusiasm for Gillum that could help other Democrats on the ballot.
“He’s bringing a lot of new energy to the table and I think it’s going to produce more African-Americans, I think it’s going to produce more young people,” Nelson told the paper. “And hopefully I might have some value that I bring to the ballot as well.” (Yeah, dude. Hopefully!)
Nelson might have a point. In the two polls released by Quinnipiac and Gravis since his upset victory in August, Gillum polled slightly ahead of U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, his Trump-endorsed, white nationalist-sympathizing Republican opponent; in the same two polls, Nelson and Scott were tied. Out of six polls taken since June that were compiled by RealClearPolitics, Nelson has only led the race once.
But when Nelson was asked about a number of Gillum’s progressive policy positions, he seemed, well, less enthused. Per the Times:
Take Gillum’s call to abolish the agency known as ICE, or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “in its current form.” Nelson isn’t on board.
“I don’t want to abolish ICE. I want to abolish Trump,” Nelson said in a sit-down Monday with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. “ICE is merely the administrative agency. It’s the policies in that agency that is problem.”
What about Gillum’s support for universal health care, often called Medicare for all? “I’ve got enough trouble just trying to save Obamacare,” Nelson said. “I’m into results.”
A $15 minimum wage?
“I have supported a $12 minimum wage,” Nelson said, “but I am certainly open to suggesting anything that will improve the lot of the average working man.”
In addition to that slate of policy priorities, the paper notes Gillum has also advocated for the full legalization of marijuana and impeaching Trump. Nelson won’t commit to impeachment, and, while he backs medical marijuana, doesn’t quite advocate for full legalization. (It’s worth noting that, on all of these issues except for the minimum wage, Nelson, as a candidate for federal office, would probably be the only one with a say on these issues.)
Nelson did, however, stress his areas of agreement with Gillum in the interview, indicating either that he’s really excited about Democratic unity or simply that he knows which way the winds of 2018 are blowing.
“Look at the things that we agree on and look at the things that he has jurisdiction on that we agree,” Nelson said. “Take for example, health care. Andrew certainly agrees that we ought to expand Medicaid for the 800,000 (would-be eligible Floridians).”
It’s not surprising that Nelson isn’t eager to sprint left with Gillum; to do so would be disingenuous after a decades-long career as a member of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. But the conventional wisdom for the past several decades in Florida—and anywhere else that trends red or even purple—has been that nominating moderates like Nelson are the Democrats’ only shot at winning contentious races.
That might have been true, for a time. But if Nelson can win a fourth term in a swing state with the help of a young, charismatic candidate running on a platform of social democracy like Gillum, it’ll send a message that national Democrats won’t be able to ignore.