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Nelson's town hall comments show he is gearing up for a race against Scott for Florida Senate seat

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson attended CNN's town hall on Wednesday night to talk about school safety and gun violence....

Posted: Feb 23, 2018 5:58 AM
Updated: Feb 23, 2018 5:58 AM

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson attended CNN's town hall on Wednesday night to talk about school safety and gun violence. But by the end of the night, the vulnerable senator up for reelection this year proved one thing clearly: He is gearing up for a fight against Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott, who declined to attend citing state business, was front of mind for Nelson throughout the event that aimed to discuss school safety in the wake of the Parkland school shooting that left 17 people dead last week.

"There is no representative of the state of Florida," Nelson said at the open of the town hall. "Our governor did not come here."

The comments previewed what to expect during what could be a hotly contested race between Nelson and Scott, with the sitting senator showing he is prepared to hammer the governor on guns whenever he gets the chance. Scott has yet to declare his intention to run against Nelson, but national and Florida Republicans -- including President Donald Trump, who won the state in his presidential election last year -- are eager for him to get in.

Nelson slammed Scott for failing to attend, for incentivizing gun manufacturers to come to Florida and for not adequately responding to the 2016 shooting at a club in Orlando, Florida that left 49 people dead.

"Two years ago, when 49 lives were taken in the Pulse nightclub, and nothing was done; not in Washington, not in Tallahassee, not one thing offered by the administration in Tallahassee," Nelson said. "And here we are, going through this again. And it's going to unfortunately very possibly continue unless we get some common-sense laws on the book."

Nelson, in the same answer, commended Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for showing up. Rubio, an opponent of certain gun control measures with ties to the National Rifle Association, was sharply criticized by gun survivors and shooting victims families and was repeatedly booed for some of his answers.

Scott's gubernatorial office disputed the allegation that the governor did nothing after the Pulse shooting.

John Tupps, Scott's communications director, said that Scott secured "$5.8 million for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to add 46 counterterrorism agents to the Terrorism Task Forces" after the Pulse attack and signed legislation last year that "requires schools to prioritize the establishment of school resource officers."

Nelson also faulted the Scott administration for the giving Kalashnikov USA, the company that makes the Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle, financial incentives for manufacturing the weapon in Pompano Beach, Florida.

"Did you know it is manufactured in this state?" he asked a student about the AK-47. "Did you know that the state of Florida, the governor's office gave financial incentives for them to come into the state and manufacture?"

He went on to use the same argument for a Colt Corporation operation in Kissimmee, Florida.

Tiffany Vause, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, told CNN on Thursday that the State of Florida did offer Kalashnikov USA tax refunds, but the contract was terminated because the company did not complete the process needed to obtain them.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee deferred a request for comment to Scott's team.

"Not shocking that Senator Nelson wants to exploit this tragedy and make it into a political stump speech," said Joanna Burgos, a Scott adviser. "I'll leave Senator Nelson to his politicking during this tragedy. Governor Scott has spent the week attending funerals, meeting with parents, students, law enforcement, etc to make sure this does not happen again. No room for politics today."

The thrust of Nelson's argument was clear: Scott has not addressed gun violence adequately.

But under the surface, Nelson also signaled that he views Scott as the most formidable opponent he could draw in the 2018 race -- and that he is already preparing the lines he would use against the Florida governor.

And, in doing so, he parroted political arguments made against Scott by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

"Rick Scott is refusing to show up tonight because he cannot defend his record," spokesman David Bergstein said in a statement. "It shouldn't have taken this tragedy or the ones before it to compel Scott to consider basic ideas to protect Floridians from gun violence but Scott only does anything when it benefits his own political interests."

Scott has so far dodged questions about whether he plans to run for Senate in 2018. Speaking with reporters earlier this month, Scott said he had an "existing job" and is focused on his current legislative sessions in Tallahassee.

But he is getting pressure -- from Florida and beyond -- to run for the seat.

"I hope this man right here, Rick Scott, runs for the Senate," Trump said during a visit for Florida last year.

"I don't know what he's going to do, but I know that at a certain point it ends for you, and we can't let it end," Trump added. "So, I hope he runs for Senate. Who knows what he's gonna do?"

It is still early in the 2018 cycle, but preliminary polling shows the race could be neck-and-neck in a state that has a long history of races with razor-thin margins.

A Democratic operative involved on Senate races said Thursday that it seemed clear Nelson was eager to send a sign to Scott's team as the governor weighs a run.

"Anyone watching on Rick Scott's team who thought they were going to be able to stroll through these Senate race got a reminder last night that they don't know a damn thing about Sen. Nelson," the operative said.

This story has been updated.

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