In year of Democratic hopes, GOP comes out on top in Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — This was the year Florida's Democrats spoke ambitiously of ending their 20-year journey in political exile in this battleground state. Instead, election results after a tense and bruising recount showed Republicans coming out on top for governor and even picking up a U.S. Senate seat.

After a recount dragged on for nearly two weeks, top Democratic candidates in the state came agonizingly close but fell short of their avowed goal.

Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum conceded Saturday, followed by three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson a day later. More than 8 million voters weighed in — a far higher turnout than in past midterm elections — but the result was the same for Democrats.

When official returns were posted Sunday, Republican Gov. Rick Scott led Nelson in the Senate race by slightly more than 10,000 votes. Republican Ron DeSantis edged out Gillum, Florida's first African-American nominee for governor, by more than 32,000 votes. State officials will certify the official results Tuesday.

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DORAL, FL - MARCH 28: Florida Governor Rick Scott interacts with people at Restaurant El Arepazo 2 as he holds a bill signing ceremony for legislation to prohibit all state agencies from doing business with any entity that benefits the Venezuelan regime on March 28, 2018 in Doral, Florida. Gov. Scott said recently that he will have a big announcement on April 9, with many speculating that he will launch a Senate bid to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for the seat. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: Florida Governor Rick Scott speaks to the media as he visits Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school killed 17 people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
DORAL, FL - MARCH 28: Florida Governor Rick Scott arrives at Restaurant El Arepazo 2 to hold a bill signing ceremony for legislation to prohibit all state agencies from doing business with any entity that benefits the Venezuelan regime on March 28, 2018 in Doral, Florida. Gov. Scott said recently that he will have a big announcement on April 9, with many speculating that he will launch a Senate bid to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for the seat. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
CORAL GABLES, FL - MARCH 10: Florida Governor Rick Scott speaks with the media before the Republican presidential debate on the campus of the University of Miami on March 10, 2016 in Coral Gables, Florida. The Republican candidates continue to campaign before the March 15th Florida primary. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Florida's Governor Rick Scott addresses the media as CNN prepares for the Republican Presidential Debate March 10, 2016 in Miami, Florida. / AFP / RHONA WISE (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)
TELEMUNDO EVENTS -- Pictured: Florida Governor Rick Scott speaks during the groundbreaking ceremony for NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises' Global Headquarters on February 9, 2016 in Miami, Florida -- (Photo by: Ivan Apfel/Telemundo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
TELEMUNDO EVENTS -- Pictured: (l-r) David L. Cohen, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer, Comcast Corporation and Florida Governor Rick Scott arrive at the groundbreaking ceremony for NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises' Global Headquarters on February 9, 2016 in Miami, Florida -- (Photo by: Ivan Apfel/Telemundo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JULY 13: Florida Governor Rick Scott stands with Crystal Faircloth as he visits the Marian Center which offers services for people with intellectual disabilities on July 13, 2015 in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Governor held a bill signing ceremony at the center for Senate Bill 642, the Florida Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act as well as took the opportunity to highlight funding for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities included in the 2015-2016 state Budget. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JULY 13: Florida Governor Rick Scott speaks with Sisters, Sister Filomena Mastrangelo (L) Sister Fausta Rondena (C) and Sister Carla Valentini (R) as he visits the Marian Center which offers services for people with intellectual disabilities on July 13, 2015 in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Governor held a bill signing ceremony at the center for Senate Bill 642, the Florida Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act as well as took the opportunity to highlight funding for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities included in the 2015-2016 state Budget. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JULY 13: Florida Governor Rick Scott as he visits the Marian Center which offers services for people with intellectual disabilities on July 13, 2015 in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Governor held a bill signing ceremony at the center for Senate Bill 642, the Florida Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act as well as took the opportunity to highlight funding for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities included in the 2015-2016 state Budget. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - JULY 07: Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) arrives for a news conference and greeted by Aerospace CEO Pierre Pinsonnautt (L) and Abhishek Wakaskar (C) at Aerospace Precision. Governor Rick Scott take a tour of the facility to highlight job growth in Hollywood on Tuesday July 7, 2015 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Johnny Louis/WireImage)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 06: Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) speaks to members of the media after a meeting with Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell May 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. Governor Scott met with Secretary Burwell to discuss his funding request for a Low Income Pool program which will be expire June 30. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
MIRAMAR, FL - JANUARY 23: Florida Governor Rick Scott tours the SeaLand shipping lines new Intra-Americas headquarters on January 23, 2015 in Miramar, Florida. Scott announced that Florida businesses added 11,500 private-sector jobs in December 2014 and since December 2010, Florida has added 728,500 private-sector jobs. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott (C), flanked by family members, greets supporters after his re-election victory in a deadlocked race against Democrat Charlie Crist, during an U.S. midterm elections night party in Bonita Springs, Florida, November 4, 2014. REUTERS/Steve Nesius (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott celebrates his re-election in a deadlocked race against Democrat Charlie Crist during a U.S. midterm elections night party with supporters in Bonita Springs, Florida, November 4, 2014. REUTERS/Steve Nesius (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott speaks at a ceremony opening new newsroom facilities for the Univision and Fusion television networks in Doral, Florida August 28, 2013. Spanish language behemoth Univision is ramping up its new English cable news network Fusion aimed at younger viewers, hiring hundreds of staffers and building a flashy newsroom as it prepares to enter the crowded field of cable news channels. REUTERS/Joe Skipper (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEADSHOT MEDIA BUSINESS POLITICS)
Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott speaks at a meeting of the Latin Builders Association in Miami, Florida January 27, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Skipper (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
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The close of nearly two weeks of high political drama in the presidential swing state likely spelled the end of the political career of the 76-year-old Nelson. First elected to Congress 40 years ago, Nelson had been a Democratic survivor in an era when Republicans swept to power in Florida in the '90s. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000 and was seeking a fourth term.

"It has been a rewarding journey as well as a very humbling experience," Nelson said in a videotaped statement . "I was not victorious in this race but I still wish to strongly reaffirm the cause for which we fought: A public office is a public trust."

The political journey, however, appears to still be unfolding for Gillum, who ran on a liberal platform that included expanding Medicaid and raising taxes to spend more on education — both potential hard sells in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

In his concession video , Gillum told supporters to "stay tuned" about his next move.

"Although nobody wanted to be governor more than me, this was not just about an election cycle," said the 39-year-old Tallahassee mayor. "This was about creating the type of change in this state that really allows for the voices of everyday people to show up again in our government, in our state, and in our communities. We know that this fight continues."

In an interview on Fox & Friends on Monday morning, DeSantis called Gillum "a very formidable opponent."

"He was the only one that inspired anybody with enthusiasm. ... He was really responsible for driving a lot of these Democrats to vote who don't normally vote in midterm elections. So ... it was a tough fight."

Now, ahead of the 2020 presidential election, it will be Republicans again in firm control in Florida. A Scott victory means Florida will now have two Republican senators while padding the chamber's Republican majority.

Nelson, a Florida native with a distinct twang, fought a hard and acrimonious race against Scott, a multimillionaire businessman and relative newcomer who jumped into politics eight years ago and was urged to run this time by President Donald Trump.

And it was the third time Scott barely edged out a Democratic opponent.

"Now the campaign truly is behind us, and that's where we need to leave it," Scott said in a statement after official results were posted. "We must do what Americans have always done: come together for the good of our state and our country. My focus will not be on looking backward, but on doing exactly what I ran on: making Washington work."

Scott, who was also interviewed by Fox & Friends on Monday morning, said Nelson was "gracious" when he called him on Sunday to congratulate him.

"I told him if he has any ideas of how to do my job better, don't hesitate to call me," Scott said. "I represent everybody in my state."

Trump congratulated Scott on Twitter: "From day one Rick Scott never wavered. He was a great Governor and will be even a greater Senator in representing the People of Florida. Congratulations to Rick on having waged such a courageous and successful campaign!"

While Scott and Nelson disagreed on such key issues as gun control, health care and the environment, their campaign focused primarily on attacking each other's character and competence.

Scott bashed his rival as ineffective and out-of-touch in TV ads paid for by more than $60 million of the Republican's own money.

Nelson branded Scott as a Trump follower who used the governor's office to pad his wealth.

Nelson and his allies also ran ads that questioned Scott's ethics, pointing to his ouster years ago as chief executive of health care giant Columbia/HCA amid a federal fraud investigation. Scott was never charged with any wrongdoing, though the health care conglomerate paid a then-record $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud.

Nelson was seen as a moderate who rarely made waves or earned much national exposure as he largely devoted himself to Florida-specific issues. One of his more notable moments came when he flew on Space Shuttle Columbia while serving in Congress.

His only other election loss came in 1990 in a Democratic primary for governor — to the eventual winner Lawton Chiles.

After it became clear the Senate race would head to a legally required recount, Nelson and Democrats filed several lawsuits that challenged everything from Scott's authority over the state's election division to deadlines for mail-in ballots.

Republicans also raised questions about how some South Florida election officials were counting the ballots.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported late Sunday that one of those officials, Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, had presented a resignation letter to step down in January. The report cited an attorney who works as counsel to the Broward elections office, Burnadette Norris-Weeks. Snipes couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

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