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Nelson takes Senate seat

The Democrat wrests the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Connie Mack from the Republicans.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000

Democrat Bill Nelson declared victory in the U.S. Senate race Tuesday evening, as the consumer advocate opened up a lead over GOP congressman Bill McCollum in the race to fill Florida's first open Senate seat in 12 years.

With the evening's returns showing Nelson ahead of McCollum, the Democratic insurance commissioner appeared poised to deliver a big blow to the Florida GOP. The seat is held by conservative GOP Sen. Connie Mack.

If the returns hold up, Florida, a state that has been trending Republican for years, would have two Democratic senators for the first time since 1988.

The television networks called the race for Nelson shortly after 7 p.m. But late Tuesday, the race tightened.

By mid-evening, Nelson had emerged to declare victory and McCollum had conceded defeat.

To an ebullient crowd in a ballroom at Doak Campbell Stadium at Florida State University, Nelson thanked God and the people of Florida. He decried mean-spirited, partisan politics and repeated the central theme of his campaign: fighting special interests.

"People need public servants who will stand up for them and that's why I ran for this job," Nelson said. "Now I'm going to go to Washington and I'm going to stand up and fight for you in Washington.

"Ladies and gentleman, we won an election tonight, and we also reaffirmed the values and the commitment that we all share to do our best for the people of Florida and for the United States of America."

McCollum, a 20-year Orlando-area congressman running his first statewide race, had touted his steady climb in statewide polls and had hoped for more momentum from George W. Bush. In the end, neither was enough to overcome the vague image many voters had of McCollum as a stiff, arch-conservative partisan.

Within minutes after Florida's polls closed, the four major networks projected Nelson the winner, citing exit polls. McCollum supporters in the ballroom at the Orlando Marriott Downtown watched in resigned silence as Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham welcomed Nelson to the Senate in a nationally televised interview.

Two hours later, McCollum conceded: "This is not the end of our fight for better government, this is just the begining of our fight for better government," he told the crowd, standing beneath a big batch of unreleased balloons.

"This was never a campaign about Bill McCollum," he said. "This was always a campaign about ideas, always a campaign about better government, not bigger government. ... We had momentum coming our way at the end, we just didn't close the gap enough."

Nelson won a greater share of votes than Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, picking off Floridians who chose Republican George W. Bush.

St. Petersburg Times/ Voter News Service exit polls showed that 14 percent of Bush voters voted for Nelson, while 8 percent of Gore voters backed McCollum. Women overwhelmingly favored Nelson over McCollum, and Nelson beat out McCollum among voters of every age group.

State Rep. Willie Logan, running without party affiliation and with little money, wound up winning less than 4 percent of the vote, according to early returns.

The contest for Florida's first open Senate seat in 12 years pitted two articulate career politicians who struggled to generate attention in the shadow of a dead-heat presidential race in Florida.

They spent more money than any Senate candidates in Florida history -- at least $14.6-million between the two of them and millions more by their parties -- much of it for a barrage of negative TV attacks. Nelson and McCollum variously accused each other of raising taxes and attacking Social Security. McCollum called Nelson and liberal and failed insurance commissioner, while Nelson called McCollum an extremist and friend of anti-consumer special interests.

Only 10 years ago, it looked like Nelson's political career could be over. The former state lawmaker and congressman from Melbourne lost his gubernatorial bid in the Democratic primary. Four years later, though, Floridians elected him insurance commissioner, and Nelson carved out a reputation as a politician eager to fight for consumers against insurance corporations.

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