NBC News has declared Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson as the projected winner in the Florida Senate race.
Nelson's win over Republican challenger Congressman Connie Mack IV could help Democrats keep control of the U.S. Senate. But Nelson focused on bridging political differences in his victory speech in Orlando Tuesday night.
"I was raised to think that public service is one of the highest callings that a person can have, and I still feel that. And we have a lot to do now," said Nelson, 70, whose third term begins in January. "We have to bring this country together. It’s an extremely polarized, excessively partisan, ideologically rigid political environment, and the people are tired of that. They’re tired of the division. They want unity."
Nelson said he'll keep trying to reach across the aisle, bring people together and build consensus. He said Mack, 45, is his opponent, not enemy.
“It’s with some sadness tonight that unfortunately we didn’t win," Mack told his supporters. "But I’ll tell you this – that I am very proud of the campaign that we ran."
Mack said shortly afterward, however, that the moment was not sad but inspiring.
"This is about what America is. We went through the battle of a campaign. We fought hard to win. We didn’t win," said Mack, who has represented southwest Florida in Congress for four terms. "But we continue to fight for the ideals and the beliefs that we’ve always believed in – that America is best and strong when we stand up for our values and our principles and for our freedom. That’s what we’ve done.”
At 10:30 p.m., Nelson had 55 percent of the vote to Mack's 42 percent with 81 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
Independent candidates Bill Gaylor and Chris Borgia had 2 percent and 1 percent of the vote, respectively.
Florida's Senate race has taken a backseat to the presidential election, but a political analyst says it's deeply connected to the battle for the White House.
Nelson had the advantages of an incumbent running for a third term against challenger Mack, said analyst Peter Bergerson, who is a political science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, where Mack is based.
“And he’s been a statewide official, he’s got the organization, he’s well-funded in advance. You look at the endorsements from the five major newspapers in the state, he got endorsements from every one of them,” he said of Nelson. “I think his weakness is that he’s not flashy, he’s not the backslapper, and I guess you can say his weakness is that it’s a presidential year and his association with Obama.”
Mack’s best chance of winning was if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were to beat President Barack Obama by 5 or 6 points, bringing him with him, Bergerson said before Election Day.
“Based on all the available data, we are absolutely confident that Connie Mack will win by 1.4 percent and will be Florida’s next U.S. senator,” campaign manager Jeff Cohen said in a statement on its website.
Deputy Mack campaign manager David James explained in an email Monday night, “The problem with many polls this cycle is that they have over 5 percent more Democrats than Republicans.”
The campaign’s prediction was based on the election being more like 2004 – when more Republicans cast votes – and anticipated that on Tuesday Republicans would have a turnout advantage of at least 3 percent, James said.
The campaign was focused on voter turnout and “getting those who share Connie Mack's message of more freedom and less government to the polls,” James said.
"The way I look at it is if Mitt Romney wins, I win. And if I win, Mitt Romney wins. And if we win, America and Florida wins, right?” Mack said at a rally for the presidential nominee at the University of Miami last week. “So when you go to the polls, after you vote for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, make sure you go down the ballot just a little farther and vote for Connie Mack. Can you do that?”
Nelson is the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida. Mack's father, Connie Mack III, served in the Senate for 12 years. Nelson won the election to succeed him in 2000.
"We could not be more proud of our son tonight," said the elder Mack, who actively worked on the campaign, on Tuesday night.
Mack IV has been pitching his “Penny Plan,” which would reduce federal spending by 1 percent each year for six years, and then cap the government’s spending at 18 percent of the U.S.’s gross domestic product beginning in the seventh year. He says that it will save $7.5 trillion over a decade, and ensure that the next generation inherits a country that has freedom, security and prosperity – three ideals he’s been emphasizing.
Nelson said in their only debate at Nova Southeastern University that the Penny Plan “would absolutely eviscerate Medicare and Social Security.”
Some of the Democrat’s top issues include preserving Social Security and Medicare, cutting the deficit and taking Congress back to pay-as-you-go spending rules. Nelson voted for Obama’s health care overhaul and says it should remain in place, with fixes.
The main difference between the two at the debate was their visions of the role of government, said Charles Zelden, a professor at Nova.
Mack intensified Romney’s vision of “possessive individualism,” in which the government provides for peace, security and a somewhat level playing field and then gets out of the way and lets people do what they can, Zelden said. Meanwhile, Nelson echoed what Obama says about how government has a role in helping everyone get a chance to get ahead, he said.
“I think Nelson has been able to establish his own personality and his own election, separate from the president’s, even though he’s campaigned with him and he’s not ignored him,” Bergerson said. “But it’s not like they’re connected at the hip.”
Nelson told reporters at Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana on Wednesday that the two races are “not necessarily” closely tied together.
“You’ve seen there are parts of Florida that I worked very hard, like North Florida, that I’ll be able to get a fairly decent vote, but I think it’s going to turn out pretty good for both the president and us,” he said.