Bill Nelson is an incumbent without the advantages of incumbency.
Florida's only statewide elected Democrat is in a career-defining U.S. Senate race against Gov. Rick Scott, a multimillionaire with unlimited campaign cash and nearly universal name recognition in the state, for better or worse. And so far, Scott is attempting to define Nelson through $8 million in television ads across the state, including Spanish-language ads in Miami.
The early TV blitz raises the question: When is Nelson going to respond?
"The question is not how much money you have or how much money you spend but what is effective," Nelson said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office, where he was waiting to vote on Gina Haspel's nomination as CIA director in Washington while Scott was criss-crossing Florida switching between his official office and campaign mode. . "And so, to be determined. But I'm choosing not to use my hard-earned dollars now."
Nelson declined to say when he will spend his money and what type of message he plans to communicate to voters. But timing a television pitch too late could be Nelson's undoing.
Rep. Charlie Crist, who lost a statewide race to Rick Scott in 2014 by 1 percentage point, said months of television ads by Scott without a response from his campaign was one of the big reasons why he came up short.
"Back in '14 we were unanswering on television for like three months just because of the resource issue," Crist said. "You can handle it for a while but sooner or later you've got to start to respond."
Television advertising is essential and expensive in a state with 20 million people and six of the country's top 100 television markets, including the country's third-largest Spanish-speaking television market in South Florida.
Scott went up on television almost immediately after officially announcing his Senate bid on April 9, meaning Nelson has been playing the television waiting game for over 6 weeks, trying to amass campaign cash through fundraisers while also fulfilling his role as a lawmaker in Washington Monday through Thursday.
Crist said he expects Nelson to be up on TV imminently, though Nelson won't divulge when he'll take the seven-figure plunge. Nelson noted that he had done 44 events during the first five weeks of his campaign, though many of them were fundraisers. He took issue with the suggestion that he isn't campaigning aggressively, but acknowledged the disparity on television.
"I would ask you to question your premise there about him being more aggressive," Nelson said, as he propped his feet on a desk. "If you want to define that in terms that he has TV up, that’s correct, but not in the way the campaign is being conducted."
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