JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott appears to have ended the lengthy political career of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson after final official results posted Sunday showed Scott ahead of the three-term incumbent by more than 10,000 votes.
Scott said in a statement that he had just spoken with Bill Nelson who conceded the race.
Florida counties had until noon to file official results with the state following a weeklong machine and hand recount that had triggered allegations of fraud and several lawsuits. State officials will certify official results on Tuesday.
Nelson, 76, had no immediate comment, but was scheduled to release a videotaped statement later Sunday.
The apparent defeat of Nelson brings an end to a now-bygone era in Florida. Nelson had been a Democratic survivor as the GOP ascended into power, hewing to a more moderate tone even as newcomers such as Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum tried to push the party in a more liberal direction.
Scott charged into the race last April at the urging of President Donald Trump and spent more than $60 million of his own money on a series of ads that hammered Nelson as out-of-touch and ineffective.
The campaign waged between the two men was more about character, competence and their loyalty to Trump even though Scott was placed on the defensive about his record on the environment and health care.
The weeks leading up to the election were bitter, and it remained that way after it became clear that the race between Nelson and Scott would head to a legally required recount. Scott held a press conference at the governor's mansion suggesting that fraud may be going on in several Democratic-controlled counties.
Nelson and the Democrats responded by filing several lawsuits that challenged everything from Scott's authority over the state's election division to deadlines for mail-in ballots.
The Nelson campaign managed to secure only one win in court. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker gave voters until 5 p.m. on Saturday to fix their ballots if they haven't been counted because of mismatched signatures. Nearly 5,700 ballots were rejected because signatures on ballot envelopes did not match signatures kept on file by election officials.
Walker rejected a request by Democrats to automatically count all the ballots with mismatched signatures. He also rejected a request to waive deadlines for domestic mail-in ballots even if they had been mailed prior to Election Day.
Scott, a one-time health care executive and multimillionaire, first jumped into politics eight years ago, when he rode a tea party wave into the governor's office. Term limits prevented him from seeking re-election. As the state's chief executive, Scott focused on job creation and turning around Florida's economy after the recession.
Nelson and Scott disagreed on issues ranging from gun control to environmental policy to health care. Nelson was a strong supporter of the federal health care overhaul pushed into law by President Barack Obama, while Scott had called for the law to be repealed and replaced.
Nelson and his allies ran ads that questioned Scott's ethics, pointing to his ouster as chief executive of health care giant Columbia/HCA amid a federal fraud investigation. Although Scott was never charged with any wrongdoing, the health care conglomerate paid a then-record $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud.
Democrats also questioned whether Scott had conflicts while governor since both he and his wife invested in companies that do business in Florida, including a subsidiary of the company that owns Florida's largest electric utility. Scott has maintained he does not control his holdings.
Florida counties have hit the deadline for submitting official results in this year's contentious midterm elections. Counties had until noon on Sunday to finish up recounts and turn final totals in closely watched races for U.S. Senate and governor. State election officials will officially certify the results on Tuesday.
The deadline comes a day after Democrat Andrew Gillum conceded the governor's race to Republican Ron DeSantis. Previous totals showed Gillum trailing DeSantis by more than 30,000 votes.
Counties were legally required to do a machine recount after the initial results showed the race for governor and U.S. Senate very close. State officials then ordered a hand recount earlier in the week after the machine recount showed that Gov. Rick Scott led incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson by about 12,600 votes.
Several counties have posted hand recount updates on their websites. The totals for Nelson and Scott have changed slightly, but not significantly.
Saturday afternoon, Democrat Andrew Gillum officially ends bid for Florida governor and has congratulated Republican Ron DeSantis.
Gillum posted a live video on Facebook on Saturday afternoon in which he congratulated DeSantis.
#TeamGillum, our fight continues.Posted by Andrew Gillum on Saturday, November 17, 2018
Gillum had conceded to DeSantis on election night, but retracted it after the margin between the two candidates narrowed. The race went to a legally required recount, but after an initial machine recount DeSantis still led Gillum by more than 30,000 votes.
Gillum, who is Tallahassee's mayor, isn't saying what he plans to do next. "Stay tuned," he said in his brief remarks. Nonetheless Gillum says he will remain politically active, adding "the fight for Florida continues." Before Gillums' remarks, President Trump tweeted a message to Gillum on Saturday.
Congratulations to Andrew Gillum on having run a really tough and competitive race for Governor of the Great State of Florida. He will be a strong Democrat warrior long into the future - a force to reckon with!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 17, 2018
The recount has been fraught with problems. Palm Beach County, a large Democratic stronghold, was unable to finish its machine recount by the Thursday deadline due to machines breaking down. A federal judge rejected a request to extend the recount deadline.
“We gave a heroic effort,” said Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher. If the county had three or four more hours, it would have made the deadline to recount ballots in the Senate race, she said.
Meanwhile, election officials in Tampa area decided against turning in the results of Hillsborough County's machine recount, which came up with 846 fewer votes than originally counted. And media in South Florida reported that Broward County finished its machine recount but missed the deadline by a few minutes.
Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan said the hand recount in the Senate race resulted in 92 additional votes for Nelson, and 38 additional votes for Scott.
As far as the Commissioner of Agriculture race goes, Robert Phillips, supervisor of elections assistant in Duval County, said Nikki Fried picked up 47 votes and Matt Caldwell gained 27 votes in the hand recount.
The individual ballot examinations are done at a dozen tables, each with two employees of the supervisor of election's office closely watched by election observers from both parties.
"And they’re taking this one step at a time, making sure everything is right," Duval County Republican Party Chairwoman Karyn Morton said. "We're pleased (with the) way things are going."
The Democratic Party did challenge some ballots were no candidate was selected, concerned that these could be duplicates.
Will these ballots count?
Any vote where the voter's intent is not obvious or that is questioned by one of the party observers is reviewed by the three-member canvassing board, which makes the final determination.
"The ones where you see a mark other than the oval, those of the ones that are a little bit difficult," Hogan said. "So does take a little more time. you really have to struggle with (those)."
Counties must report the results of the manual recount, plus overseas ballots still arriving and those where the voter's signature is verified by noon Sunday.
Unofficial vote totals after machine recount
Source: Florida Division of Elections
Six election-related lawsuits are pending in federal court in Tallahassee, and at least one in state court.
The situation drew the ire of U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who slammed the state for repeatedly failing to anticipate election problems. He also said the state law on recounts appears to violate the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that decided the presidency in 2000.
“We have been the laughingstock of the world, election after election, and we chose not to fix this,” Walker said at a hearing Thursday.
Walker vented his anger at state lawmakers and Palm Beach County officials, saying they should have made sure they had the equipment to handle this kind of a recount. But he said he couldn’t extend the recount deadline because he didn’t know when Palm Beach County would finish its work.
The overarching problem was created by the Florida Legislature, which Walker said passed a recount law that appears to run afoul of the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, by locking in procedures that do not allow for potential problems.
Walker also ordered that voters be given until 5 p.m. Saturday to show a valid identification and fix their ballots if they haven’t been counted due to mismatched signatures. Republicans challenged this order and were turned down by an appeals court.
State officials testified that nearly 4,000 mailed-in ballots were set aside because local officials decided the signatures on the envelopes did not match the signatures on file. If those voters can prove their identity, their votes will now be counted and included in final official returns due from each county by noon Sunday.
Walker was asked by Democrats to require local officials to provide a list of people whose ballots were rejected. But the judge refused the request as “inappropriate.”
Under state law, a hand review is required when the victory margin is 0.25 percentage points or less. A state website’s unofficial results show Scott ahead of Nelson by 0.15 percentage points. The margin between DeSantis and Gillum was 0.41 percent.
Late Thursday, Walker rejected a challenge by Nelson and Democrats to the rules of the hand recount in the Senate race. During the hand recount, elections officials look at just the ballots that weren't recorded by voting machines. Walker found the state's rules were reasonable and constitutional.
The state must certify the results of the election by next Tuesday, but it may not end there. Candidates will then have 10 days to file suit in state court.