WASHINGTON – After months of being overpowered on the Florida airwaves by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Bill Nelson is about to start punching back.
The Florida Democrat and his political allies have reserved about $42 million in broadcast, cable and satellite television ad buys in the state's 10 markets from August through Election Day – more than twice the $17.4 million Nelson's side spent on TV spots prior to August.
In a race where polls show an even contest and most analysts rate it as a tossup, Nelson's first ad from his own campaign is slated to air later this month.
Scott – the 65-year-old, term-limited governor seeking to unseat Nelson this fall – and independent groups supporting him have not exactly been camera shy. The governor and his Republican allies spent $47.6 million through July, three-quarters of it on negatively portraying Nelson.
The data on past and future ad buys was compiled exclusively for the USA TODAY Network by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Scott and independent groups supporting him so far only have $18.3 million queued up for the home stretch of the campaign. But by November, he is expected to be outspending Nelson by a wide margin.
"It's the Scott playbook," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate campaigns for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "We saw him do it in two gubernatorial contests. There's no reasons to think he's going to shift strategies at this point. And despite the help Nelson will get from outside groups ... they're not going to be able to match him dollar for dollar."
The additional ads Scott is expected to purchase mean the race is likely to wind up as the most expensive both in the nation and in Florida history.
Buyers can place orders or move money months or hours in advance, depending on availability, said Madeline Meininger, a senior analyst with Kantar.
But they also show Democrats are gearing up for a fight after watching the governor and his allies saturate the airwaves. Of the $42 million reserved for ads to help the incumbent win re-election to a fourth term, nearly $24 million of it has been made by the Senate Majority PAC, which is controlled by Democratic leaders in Washington.
And Carlie Waibel, a spokeswoman for the Nelson campaign, said television spots will augment the messaging already being done through digital ads, door-to-door canvassing and other strategies.
"As the campaign goes up on TV this fall, our direct voter outreach will continue as we will communicate across numerous platforms about Bill Nelson's record of putting Florida first," she said.
A mostly one-sided ad war
Since he announced his challenge to Nelson in April, Scott has run more than 18,000 spots across the state. In addition, groups supporting Scott ran another more than 6,700 spots during the same period while those supporting Nelson aired about 8,200, according to Kantar's data.
There's no reason that onslaught won't continue given Scott's history. After using $90 million of his own fortune to fund two successful gubernatorial campaigns, the former health care executive has already contributed $14.1 million into the Senate race, according to campaign records filed with the Federal Election Commission.
"I'm going to do whatever I can to win this election," he said in April when asked about self-funding.
Critics say Nelson should have gone on the air sooner to combat that narrative. But there's a problem: not enough money.
Going on the air to match Scott in April or May would have meant little ability to match Scott in September and October, Duffy said.
And "the longer you're dark, the more whatever you achieved begins to erode," she said. "If you can't be up for just about the duration ,then you're better off holding your fire until you can go up and stay up."
In his three previous Senate campaigns, Nelson never faced someone like Scott, who's fundraising ferocity and willingness to dig deeply into his bank account immediately give him an edge. The $17 million Kantar's data has Nelson reserving on television from now until Election Day (his campaign says it's closer to $19 million) is about the same amount he spent for his entire campaign in 2012.
Nelson, 75, has publicly shrugged off Scott's early advantage on the airwaves and in name identification, saying in May that Florida voters "know who the governor is but they don't necessarily like that guy."
Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for the Scott campaign, said the governor's visits to 49 of Florida's 67 counties as a candidate and his endorsement by a number of law enforcement and business groups show his support is built on more than just television ads.
"The governor will aggressively campaign and meet with voters in every part of Florida," she said.
I-4 Corridor key
Kantar's data shows how much both camps value the I-4 corridor that runs from Tampa through Orlando and ends at the Atlantic shore where Daytona Beach and the adjoining Space Coast often decide elections in the nation's largest swing state.
Of the roughly $60 million already reserved by both sides from August through November, more than half – $32.3 million – is being spent in the Tampa and Orlando markets. Miami-Fort Lauderdale ($8.9 million), West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce ($5.7 million), and Jacksonville ($4.6 million) round out the top five.
Money does not automatically translate directly to the number of times an ad will run.
The $1.7 million Nelson’s campaign has reserved in the relatively cheap Pensacola market could go considerably further than the $8.7 million it reserved in the much pricier Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area. The timing of the ads and the popularity of the shows they appear around also factor into the cost.
The analysis does not include digital ads that stream on computers and mobile devices, a mode Nelson spokeswoman Waibel said is often more effective at reaching specific cohorts of voters than broadly aired TV spots.
Among those digital ads the campaign has sponsored are ones blaming Scott for the current algae crisis, accusing of him of wasting taxpayer dollars on debris removal, and claiming that he's not sincere about opposing oil drilling off Florida's coasts.
Spanish-language ads growing
Adding to the electoral importance of the I-4 corridor this election is the influx of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have migrated from their hurricane-ravage homes to the Sunshine State, many joining relatives and fellow transplants in the Orlando area.
Scott has run more than 1,700 Spanish-language spots in the state since April, more than a third of which have aired in the Orlando market. That strategy, as well as the governor's efforts welcoming Puerto Ricans looking to resettle in the Sunshine State, appears to be paying off if a recent poll is any indication.
While 72% of Puerto Ricans in Florida have an unfavorable opinion of President Donald Trump, 76% have a favorable view of Scott, according to the survey released June 30 by the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.
Nelson's campaign has yet to run any Spanish-language ads on television. But Alianza for Progress, a Kissimmee-based organization formed to promote Hispanic issues and progressive policies, ran 100 anti-Scott ads in the Orlando area during July, according to Kantar.
And Nelson has reserved nearly $2.3 million in television air time through the fall, mainly on the Miami, Orlando and Tampa markets.
A building deluge
Expect the avalanche of ads to build as the election nears.
The combined cost of ads on reserve grows steadily from August ($4.7 million), into September ($11.6 million), through October ($38.9 million) and into the first few days of November ($7.1 million), according to the Kantar data.
And that doesn't include the millions analysts expect the two campaigns and outside groups will pour into cable, broadcast and satellite TV as Election Day (Nov. 6) approaches.
Duffy said Scott's decision to go on the air almost immediately after he announced his candidacy for Senate was a loud warning shot to his opponent.
"That was just to send a message to Nelson: 'This is what you have to look forward to. This is what it's going to be like for the next six months,'" she said.