Big money showdown in Florida: The duel between Rick Scott and Bill Nelson is shaping up to be ‘one of the most expensive Senate races ever’

Sen. Bill Nelson, left, and Gov. Rick Scott

Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images; Getty Images
Sen. Bill Nelson, left, and Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott jumped into Florida’s Senate race on Monday, entering a battle with Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson that will likely be determined by how many millions of dollars each candidate spends come Election Day.

One plugged-in Republican strategist told CNBC that it “will be one of the most expensive Senate races ever run.”

Both Scott and Nelson are likely to rack up huge amounts of donations, said the strategist, Alex Conant, former spokesman for Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. But look for outside donor groups to ante up big time, he added.

“Money always matters, but both candidates will be very well-funded,” said Conant, currently a partner at consulting firm Firehouse Strategies. “I would expect all the big outside groups on both sides to engage in this race, especially if it remains close until the end.”

Where Scott could get support

Scott already has one money advantage coming into the election: He was the chairman of New Republican PAC, a political action committee that claims to be dedicated to rebranding the GOP.

The group has already been active in the 2018 election cycle, having raised $1.7 million so far this year. The PAC’s biggest donor, Comprehensive Care Group, a health-care center based in South Florida, contributed $250,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings reviewed by CNBC. The group also has the backing of the founder of private equity firm Energy Capital Partners, Douglas Kimmelman, who has given more than $50,000.

The PAC currently has just more than $899,000 on hand, a good start for Scott if the PAC chooses to back him for Senate.

Scott also could get the blessing of an organization that follows the beat of President Donald Trump‘s drum, America First Action Super PAC. The group’s leader, Brian O. Walsh, recently told CNBC that the PAC did not rule out backing the Florida governor’s Senate bid.

“It’s a terrific opportunity and an aggressive race,” Walsh said. “What it means for us and what we will engage in, we will determine that throughout the year.”

America First Action has the financial support of Republican megadonors from across the United States, including real estate tycoon Geoffrey Palmer, who has coughed up $2 million to the PAC, and Ronald Weiser, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, who contributed $200,000.

Even before Scott’s announcement, one powerful PAC has been on the offensive against Nelson since he voted against the GOP tax reform bill passed last year. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chief of staff, Steven Law, has ripped the Florida Democrat for months, including with a website dedicated to attacking him.

On the site, titled Back Bench Bill, a digital attack ad pops up and calls for Democratic lawmakers to lose their jobs over not voting for the tax bill.

A spokesman for the PAC declined to comment about its future strategy with Scott’s inclusion in the race. A spokesperson for Scott did not return a request for comment.

Nelson’s war chest

Nelson, on the other hand, has a war chest of his own.

His campaign his raised $10 million through the early stages of the 2018 midterm cycle, and has $8 million on hand. The campaign has received contributions from a variety of groups including the joint fundraising committee, Senate Victory 2018, with contributions totaling more than $150,000. Regions Bank, meanwhile, has given $114,000 to Nelson so far.

There’s also a super PAC that appears to be ready to unleash spending in the state to support Nelson – the Senate Majority PAC, which was created to help Democrats get elected to the Senate.

On Sunday, the PAC released a digital attack ad in anticipation of Scott’s announcement as part of what the group claims is part of a larger campaign against the Republican. In the ad, the PAC argues that when Scott was CEO of health-care company Columbia/HCA, he defrauded taxpayers.

Scott was forced out as CEO of the company during a federal fraud investigation. He was never charged with any wrongdoing.

Then the ad attempts to link his activities with the company to his time as governor, when the group says he cut billions of dollars to education subsidies while also raising taxes.

“History has proven that if you want to predict how Rick Scott will act, figure out what will benefit his political career and his bank account,” J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, said in a press release. “The list goes on and on – leading a company that defrauded taxpayers, rewarding state contracts to companies he had a financial interest in, slashing education funding and raising property taxes,” he added.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is also getting an early start in attacking Scott. The group released Facebook ads on Monday linking voters to its anti-Scott digital hub titled Self Serving Scott. The committee’s spokesman, David Bergstein, said in a press release that Scott used his position as governor to only help one person: himself.

“His record is a story voters of every political persuasion will reject: lost jobs, low wages and higher health care costs for hardworking families — while using his position as governor to make himself richer,” Bergstein said.

Nelson also has the advantage of already being backed by several major players in corporate America. He can tout individual contributions from employees at powerful corporations ranging from American Airlines to Walt Disney, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Employees of Disney have in total given $33,000 to the Democrat incumbent while those at American Airlines have contributed $24,000. Executives from the technology and defense contractor Harris have contributed $81,000 to Nelson.

American Airlines has a hub in Miami, while Disney’s Walt Disney World theme park is near Orlando. Harris’ corporate headquarters is in Melbourne, Florida.

Nelson seemed undeterred by Scott’s entrance into the race, according to a statement from his campaign.

“While it’s clear that Rick Scott will say or do anything to get elected, I’ve always believed that if you just do the right thing, the politics will take care of itself,” Nelson said through the statement.

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