ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) and Senator Bill Nelson (D) faced off in an extensive debate and, at times, heated debate.
- Scott, Nelson attacked each other in the first debate
- Second debate is later this month in Tampa, hosted by CNN
- DECISION 2018: Latest News | Voting Guide
The prerecorded debate, hosted by Spanish language network Telemundo in Miami, aired Tuesday night with Spanish translations.
Florida’s two-term Republican governor is challenging Nelson, the Democratic incumbent, for the seat he’s held since 2001.
“I don’t think either of these two wasted any time going after the message we’re already being bombarded with on television and radio,” said Frank Torres, Spectrum News political analyst.
The sparring back and forth, and high fill of tension is a tone that’s expected to last through the campaign.
“Both of these candidates are going to stay negative because it’s what viewers and voters remember,” Torres said. “There’s a saying that you can say nine good things about somebody and one bad thing, and it is the bad thing that we’re going to remember. That’s the philosophy both candidates are using in this race. Negative ads are not going to stop in the senate race, governor’s race or any of the other races.”
The debate appears to focus on both candidates’ records and issues of gun rights, economy, environment, and the response to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
After the taping, Scott’s Campaign Manager Jackie Schutz Zeckman, previewed the debate saying “…Nelson is losing his mind. A rambling, incoherent, confused, disjointed performance from a desperate career politician who is trying to hold onto his job. Bill Nelson laid out no vision for Florida and is barely hanging on…see how Governor Scott plans to reform Washington and actually make it work for Floridians.”
Nelson’s campaign followed up, saying: “…Bill Nelson laid Rick Scott out during the tape of the Telemundo debate this morning over the governor’s numerous untruths, frauds, and unethical investments…this email from inside the Scott Camp shows how vitriolic they are in response to the governor’s debate loss. It is unhinged, hate-filled attack that deserves no response.”
Here's a look at some of the topics they debated.
Candidates were asked about the estimated more than 900,000 undocumented immigrants living in Florida.
Nelson told moderators he is in support of immigration reform, while passing blame to the U.S. House for failing to pass a Senate measure six years ago.
“You see children being taken away from their families at the border, which by the way, when that was happening, my opponent was silent,” Nelson said. “You see a situation where people are here constantly living in the shadows, and what we should do is we should have a comprehensive immigration law.”
Scott said he is for increasing border protection measures, while also pushing blame to Nelson for not already passing immigration reforms.
“Our cities have to obey the law,” Scott said. “My opponent has opposed requiring our cities to obey the law. We all have to obey the law and we’ve got to take care of the kids that didn’t come here on their own. Their parents brought them. We got to take care of the DACA kids. I think it’s remarkable that the senator will come up here and talk about doing something. He’s been there when his party controlled both chambers and the White House, and he did nothing.”
Moderators asked candidates about the Trump Administration’s move to make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to obtain government assistance and benefits.
Scott responded that he believes immigration reforms need to be rolled out in phases, but ultimately supports a work visa program.
“They can be vetted, and they go back home, so we can continue to grow our economy,” Scott said.
Nelson responded by saying Scott was in favor of Arizona style laws that allowed officers to stop individuals and demand citizenship documents based.
“The Arizona law said that law enforcement could stop and frisk on the basis of a person’s color or their ethnicity,” Nelson said. “That law was ultimately declared unconstitutional. My opponent wanted to bring that to Florida, so I think you see what his real feeling is about immigration.”
When asked pointedly about whether they support green cards being made available to illegal immigrants, Nelson said he supports the program.
“That was the whole purpose of the immigration law, to put people on a path,” Nelson said.
Scott declined to answer, instead saying Nelson has not accomplished anything and calling Tampa Bay Times’ “Politifact” an extension of the Democratic party.
A major test of Governor Rick Scott’s two terms in office came February 14, 2018, when a gunman shot and killed 17 teachers and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Weeks after the shooting, Scott signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act into law, which expanded school security measures, and aimed to limit gun access to those deemed mentally ill.
While Scott claims Bill Nelson voted against a measure that would have reauthorized grants to help states use national background check database, critics argue Scott was too slow to respond, and should have enacted similar gun reform measures years before.
During the debate, Nelson said he supports assault rifle bans and more stringent background checks.
“We ought to pass a comprehensive background check, a universal and comprehensive background check like the one that I have voted on,” Nelson said. “And until we do that, we are going to continue to have the problems that we’re having.”
Nelson brought up the shootings at Pulse nightclub and Stoneman Douglas High School during his response. Nelson invited Fred Guttenberg to be his guest at Tuesday’s debate. Guttenberg’s daughter, Jaime, was among the 17 killed in Parkland. Guttenberg has also been highly outspoken since.
Scott rebutted that he is pro Second Amendment and believes the issue is about who has access to firearms.
“I think we ought to focus on the problem,” Scott said. “The problem is we have people that want to harm themselves or others, and I think we ought to take all weapons away from them.”
Governor Rick Scott was pushed repeatedly on his record, which he says includes 1.6 million new jobs, $10 billion in tax cuts, and the lowest unemployment rate in Florida in more than a decade.
“Look at the difference in our state now as compared to when I – the four years before I ran,” Scott said. “Home prices are dropped in half. You couldn’t find a job. Now we have about 250,000 job openings in the state. Wages are going up. Our job growth rate is 60 percent faster than the rest of the country. That’s how wages are going to continue to grow.”
Democrats have been critical, saying the governor has failed to create more high wage jobs, pointing to a United Way study that estimates 44 percent of Florida families don’t’ make enough to make ends meet.
The annual income for an average family in Florida is $50,0860, 12 percent less than the national average.
“Almost one half in this state do not have enough income for housing, and food, and medical care, and child care, and transportation,” Nelson said. “That’s not a good record on income of jobs. You take teachers, they are paid on the average $10,000 less than the national average for teachers. Now, that’s not a good record.”
Minimum wage in Florida is currently $8.25 an hour. It has only increased $1 since 2009.
As part of a deal with employee unions, Disney announced in August that it would raise its minimum wage at its Florida theme parks to $15 an hour by the year 2021. Walmart and Target made similar announcements earlier this year, and Amazon announced by November 1, 2018 it too will increase minimum wage for all employees to $15 an hour.
Nelson said during the debate that he supports a minimum wage of at least $12 an hour, if not $15.
Scott refused to answer the question of whether he supports $15 hour minimum wage, instead falsely saying Nelson had voted for higher taxes more than 300 times.
“So, here’s an individual who has had 40 years to do something to try to improve the economy,” Scott said. “But, the things he would do actually hurts the economy. That’s exactly what Barack Obama was doing, higher taxes, more regulations.”
Prior to running for Governor, Rick Scott was a former healthcare executive.
As the state’s chief executive, Scott often argued that he believes the Affordable Care Act is not working. It’s a stance he’s changed several times, at first opposing ACA, then supporting the measure ahead of his 2012 reelection, and then changing back.
”We have to make sure that anybody can get health care insurance,” Scott said. “My opponent had plenty f time to take care of that when he was the insurance commissioner and never did. And by the way, under Obamacare, the Congress exempt themselves so it wouldn’t apply to them.”
Nelson rejected the notion, saying more than 2 million Floridians are provided insurance through the Affordable Care Act, that otherwise would not have it.
Nelson also took issue with Scott not stepping in to block Florida from joining a federal lawsuit reversing rules that barred insurers from denying coverage for an individual with preexisting conditions.
Scott rebutted saying he supports protections for those with preexisting conditions and the decision to join the federal lawsuit was made by the independently elected Attorney General, Pam Bondi.
Scott’s campaign claims when he took office in 2011, “Florida’s economy was in shambles because of Senator Nelson’s friends, Charlie Crist and Barack Obama. Thanks to Governor Scott’s work to cut taxes, reduce debt and turnaround economy, record investments have been made in Florida students.”
The Governor’s office says that includes record per-student spending.
The Senate Majority PAC responded with a new Spanish language ad, saying Governor Scott cut $1.3 billion from public school budgets.
“Rick Scott recklessly cut more than a billion dollars from Florida’s public schools, leaving children to sit in moldy classrooms, and teachers to pay out of pocket for necessary school supplies,” said Hannah Hurley, spokesperson for Senate Majority PAC.
Counties across South Florida continue to deal with Red Tide and blue algae.
“One issue that’s really becoming prevalent over the last couple of weeks is the environment,” Torres said. “A lot of it feeds on our successful tourism industry. A lot of candidates are trying to get out in front of environmental issues and make it seem they’re the real champions for the voters.”
The latter part of Scott’s final year in office as Governor has been occupied with renewed algae and Red Tide issues.
This also became a point of contention during Tuesday’s debate where both candidates placed blame on the other for failing to act.
Scott says nature is to blame for Red Tide, and that his administration is spending millions of dollars to support communities impacted.
“The algae problem is 100 percent tied to the fact that Senator Nelson does a campaign ad in 1990, said he’s going to deal with the algae, and now, how many years later, he has never done anything to get us the money to fix the dike at Lake Okeechobee, which is 100% federal project,” Scott said.
Nelson said Scott’s reply is “totally disjointed from the truth.”
Nelson further blamed Scott of spending eight years as Governor “systematically disassembled the environmental agencies of this state. He has drained the water management districts of funding.”
Senators Bill Nelson, Marco Rubio, and Congressman Brian Mast earlier this year touted success in getting bipartisan Congressional approval for measures, including the Everglades FIRST Act, which prioritizes Lake Okeechobee issues.
The debate then turned to an issue that both candidates have campaigned hard on – Puerto Rico, and the government’s response to Hurricane Maria.
The candidates were asked if they were distancing themselves from President Trump’s recent remarks that the administration’s response for Puerto Rico after Maria was tremendous, specifically to court the Puerto Rican vote.
Nelson said he distances himself from the president because he believes Trump treated Puerto Ricans as second class citizens.
“The record of FEMA, it has been terrible and everybody knows that,” Nelson said.
Scott touted the different ways Florida helped Puerto Rico after the hurricane. He then asked why Nelson didn’t do something if he had a problem with FEMA’s response.
“Sen. Nelson has been there for decades. When does he take responsibility?” Scott said.
Nelson pointed out that he was endorsed by Puerto Rico’s governor because Nelson helped make sure the island got disaster assistance money.
“They recognize that when it came time to get the money for the hurricane disaster assistance, it was not there,” Nelson said. “One senator stood up and made sure that that disaster assistance was there.”
The moderator next asked whether Sen. Nelson or Gov. Scott would support a program to protect Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States because of the humanitarian crisis, similar to one in place for Cubans.
Scott said he is working with the Secretary of Homeland Security to try and accelerate the process for Venezuelans coming to Florida.
Nelson claimed he was working on the same thing at the federal level.
Should Florida voters be worried about interference in the November election? Sen. Nelson earlier this summer made headlines when he said Russian hackers had breached Florida’s voting systems.
Scott hit Nelson on those comments, accusing him of crying wolf.
“I don't know what his plan was. Did he want to make people uncomfortable?” Scott said. “We've put millions of dollars into our election systems. We've gotten grants for our election systems. We have added cyber security experts for our election systems. We're going to continue do everything to make sure that we have free and fair elections. I want everybody to participate, and I want no fraud.”
Nelson responded by saying he thought there were enough watch dogs watching now that Floridians should feel they can trust in election security.
He then went back to attacking Scott whether he was a trustworthy candidate.
“The governor continues to bring up issues to try to deflect from his record,” Nelson said. “He brings up things to use as a cheap political trick to get people off from looking at his record.”
The moderator next talked about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and asked whether Nelson planned to support the embattled judge. Nelson was clear that he planned to vote against Kavanaugh’s nomination.
“I'm hopeful that the FBI investigation is going to bring circumstances to light,” Nelson said. “But the judge in his response-- there was just not the temperament that is needed of what you want to put someone on the highest court in the land. And I will vote no.”
“Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh are just pawns in some political game. Both of their testimonies were convincing and pure, raw emotion. And your heart goes out to every one of them,” Scott said. “If you take all of the evidence together and you look at Judge Kavanaugh's record as a judge, I'm going to continue to support Judge Kavanaugh.”
Nelson and Scott will have one more debate later this month in Tampa, hosted by CNN.