TAMPA — In case anyone was still wondering, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson is taking himself out of contention as a possible candidate in the race for governor of Florida.
Nelson's decision could free up money for likely Democratic nominee Charlie Crist. At least some of the state's top Democratic fundraisers and donors, who have been loyal to Nelson for years while Crist was still a Republican, have been holding off on getting involved in the governor's race because of the possibility that Nelson might enter.
In the last couple of weeks, Nelson and top aides have called several of his key supporters to tell them he won't be a candidate.
Most of those who got the calls won't talk about it on the record – they say they don't want to pre-empt Nelson's own public statements concerning his political plans.
“It is my understanding that he has now ruled out running for governor due to the complexities and restraints of the campaign finance laws,” said one of those key backers, Ormond Beach insurance executive Charles Lydecker.
Lydecker didn't want to say how he got that message, but said it was “unambiguous.”
Nelson and his staff, meanwhile, say nothing has changed from his previous contention that he has “no plans and no intention” to try to switch from Washington to Tallahassee.
“Nothing has changed,” in fact, was Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin's comment on the reports of calls made by Nelson.
But for several months starting last fall, the same key backers and top aides told reporters on background that Nelson was hearing pleas from some Democrats to run, and that he was taking them seriously and not ruling it out.
Asked about it by reporters, Nelson gave the same answer for months – “I have no plans and no intention to run for governor” – but always stopped short of saying flatly that he would not run.
He gave other hints as well.
Over the last year or so, Nelson has criticized numerous decisions by Gov. Rick Scott, sometimes using uncharacteristically angry tones, making it clear he thinks Scott should be replaced.
In December, he confirmed to one reporter that he would consider entering the race if Crist appeared to be losing to Scott, though he later dismissed that as a “flip comment” made when he was off-guard.
Besides Lydecker, two other high-level Nelson donor/fundraisers and one Democratic Party insider told the Tribune they have received calls recently from Nelson or his chief of staff, Pete Mitchell, confirming that he won't be a candidate.
Some were told, as Lydecker was, that the reason has to do with fundraising regulations. As a federal officeholder, Nelson is prohibited by federal law from doing certain kinds of “soft money” fundraising – raising money in big chunks for committees or parties that don't have the contribution limits campaigns face.
In 2010, soft money was a far bigger part of spending in the Florida governor's race than spending by the candidates' own campaign committees, and that clearly will be the case again this year.
How much this will help Crist is uncertain.
Some Nelson loyalists question whether support will shift to Crist.
On the other hand, Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, a long-time Democratic fundraiser and early Crist supporter, said he's seeing “some consolidation of traditional Democratic activists and donors, including some who had been hoping Bill Nelson would consider running. I see people willing to talk to Gov. Crist about his campaign who weren't previously engaged.”