STUART, Fla. — A few steps away from the St. Lucie River, which has been choked lately with thick blue-green algae that made neighbors sick, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida sat solemnly with a group of elected officials, scientists and activists who had anxious questions about the toxic bloom. A day earlier, Mr. Nelson’s political…
STUART, Fla. — A few steps away from the St. Lucie River, which has been choked lately with thick blue-green algae that made neighbors sick, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida sat solemnly with a group of elected officials, scientists and activists who had anxious questions about the toxic bloom. A day earlier, Mr. Nelson’s political challenger, Gov. Rick Scott, had begun airing an eye-catching television ad that blamed the senator and the federal government for failing to prevent the environmental crisis.
The meeting on Friday was Mr. Nelson’s second visit in a month. And this time, he declared, he was fighting back — not against the algae, but against the governor.
“I was playing nice-nice when I was here before, but I’m going to lay out the truth,” Mr. Nelson said. “Governor Scott, in the last eight years, has systematically dismembered and dismantled the environmental agencies of the state of Florida.”
Mr. Nelson, rarely a firebrand, then returned to his wonky element, delivering a long history lesson on water management and environmental policy. His audience nodded in agreement. But only a dozen people sat at the table listening to him. Mr. Scott’s ad, on the other hand, with its alarming footage of contaminated Lake Okeechobee juxtaposed with an unflattering image of Mr. Nelson, would reach thousands of potential voters.
a formidable challenge by the wealthy governor, Mr. Nelson, a three-term incumbent, has been pushed into the unexpected position of underdog in one of the most closely watched Senate races of the midterms. After 18 years in office, Mr. Nelson remains less known than his opponent, and he is at risk of losing his seat in a battleground state where Democrats, fueled by anti-Trump energy, have notched four recent bellwether election victories.
“The only time I see Bill Nelson is five months before every election,” President Trump taunted at a rally in Tampa last week. “And after a while, you forget: ‘Who’s the senator?’”
Panicked Democrats started appealing to Mr. Nelson’s team earlier in the summer to ratchet up the campaign. In the past, Mr. Nelson has won relatively easy re-election, but he faced weak opponents in years favorable to Democrats. In contrast, Mr. Scott has built a political brand around the state’s rebounding economy and has proved to be an aggressive campaigner.
The senator has recently become more visible, helped in part by heavy media coverage of the Trump administration’s unpopular policy of separating families who cross the border illegally. Mr. Nelson made headlines when he led an effort to inspect a large shelter for migrant children in South Florida. But that event was something of an anomaly for Mr. Nelson: He has never been a cable news fixture with a deep national imprint.
“He is so modest,” said DeAnna Dean, who heads the Democratic Party in heavily Republican Sumter County, home to the state’s fast-growing retirement community, The Villages. “He needs to get out there, and we need to tell people, ‘This is the man you can trust.’”
occasionally listed as Florida voters’ write-in choice.)
What may be Mr. Nelson’s most serious shortfall in the race so far is his failure to keep up with Mr. Scott in campaigning to a key demographic group: the state’s Latinos who tend to vote less Democratic in Florida than elsewhere in the country because many of them are Cuban Americans who historically lean Republican. Mr. Scott, who learned some Spanish before his 2014 campaign, broadcast two Spanish-language ads on Telemundo last month during the World Cup. The network drew higher ratings in South Florida than anywhere else in the country during the tournament.
Poll after poll has shown Mr. Scott holding his own among Hispanic voters, including Puerto Ricans who relocated to Florida after Hurricane Maria and were expected to lean toward the Democrats. The Puerto Rican influx so far has not been accompanied by a surge in Democratic voter registrations in Central Florida, a swing region, according to data tracked by Steve Schale, a Democratic political consultant.
The same polls suggest how Mr. Nelson might win over those voters: by tying Mr. Scott to Mr. Trump, who remains unpopular among Puerto Ricans because of the federal government’s slow and problematic relief efforts after the hurricane.
Mr. Nelson was recently endorsed by Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan, who became a darling of the political left after criticizing Mr. Trump’s response to the storm. And at the Miami campaign event, held at a new Puerto Rican restaurant, Mr. Nelson was welcomed by a former mayor of Miami, Maurice Ferré, a Puerto Rican who praised the senator for having first telephoned him a decade ago to discuss matters important to the island. Mr. Ferré declared that Mr. Nelson has “el corazón boricua,” a Puerto Rican heart.
Even so, Armando Figueroa, a Puerto Rican sipping a Medalla beer at the bar, said he had no idea who Mr. Nelson was. Mr. Figueroa has lived in Florida for six years.
“We Puerto Ricans love politics — it’s like a sport — and I watch the local news; he doesn’t appear on there much,” said Mr. Figueroa, 41, who like many Puerto Ricans is registered to vote without a party affiliation. “He’s Rick Scott’s opponent? Him I know of because he has been more involved in Puerto Rican issues. I have a good impression of Rick Scott.”