Clarence William Nelson II born September 29, 1942 is an American politician serving as the senior United States Senator from Florida. He was first elected to the Senate in 2000. A member of the Democratic Party, Nelson served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1972 to 1978. He then served in the United States House of Representatives from 1979 to 1991. In January 1986, he became the second sitting member of the United States Congress to fly in space when he served as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Nelson retired from Congress in 1990 to run for Governor of Florida, but was unsuccessful. He was appointed Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal of Florida, serving from 1995 to 2001. In 2000, Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate seat that had been vacated by retiring Republican Senator Connie Mack III. He was re-elected in 2006 with 60% of the vote and in 2012 with 55% of the vote. In the Senate, he is generally considered a moderate Democrat. As of 2018, he is the only Democratic statewide elected official in Florida.
Nelson was born on September 29, 1942, in Miami, Florida, the only child of Nannie Merle née Nelson and Clarence William Nelson. He is of Scottish, Irish, English, and Danish descent. His father died of a heart attack when Nelson was 14 and his mother of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) when he was 24. Nelson grew up in Melbourne, Florida, where he attended Melbourne High School.
He attended Baptist and Episcopal churches but later was baptized through immersion in a Baptist church. He served as International President of Kiwanis-sponsored Key Club International in 1959–60. In 2005, he joined the First Presbyterian Church in Orlando.
In 1986, Nelson became the second sitting member of Congress (and the first member of the House) to travel into space. He went through NASA training with Senator Jake Garn of Utah. Nelson was a Payload Specialist on Space Shuttle Columbia’s STS-61-C mission from January 12 to January 18, 1986. The Space Shuttle Columbia landed at Edwards AFB at 5:59 a.m. PST, on January 18. The mission’s elapsed time was 6 days, 2 hours, 45 minutes, and 51 seconds. This flight was the last successful space shuttle flight prior to the Challenger accident, which occurred only ten days after the return of the Columbia. In 1988, Nelson published a book about his space flight experience entitled Mission: An American Congressman’s Voyage to Space.
Nelson is running for re-election in 2018. He ran unopposed in the Democratic Party primary, which took place on August 28, 2018.
Bill Nelson is often considered to be a moderate Democrat. He has styled himself as a centrist during his various campaigns. According to ratings by the National Journal, Nelson was given a 2013 composite score of 21% conservative and 80% liberal. In 2011, he was given composite scores of 64% liberal and 37% conservative. He also has a lifetime conservative rating of nearly 30% from the American Conservative Union. Conversely, the Americans for Democratic Action gave Nelson a 90% liberal quotient for 2016. In the 115th Congress, Nelson was more conservative than 93% of other congressional Democrats. GovTrack, which analyzes a politician’s record, places Nelson near the Senate’s ideological center and GovTrack placed him among the most moderate Senators in 2017.
The only Florida Democrat in statewide office as of 2017, he was described by Politico in March of that year as “a Senate indicator species…an institutional centrist.” Politico wrote that the Democratic Party “is shifting left and so is he.” One operative stated that “he has a steady left-wing voting record”.
As of July 2017, Nelson had a 53% approval rating and 25% disapproval rating, with 22% of survey respondents having no opinion on his job performance. FiveThirtyEight, which tracks Congressional votes, shows that Nelson has voted with President Donald Trump’s positions 42.5% of the time as of June 2018.
On August 7, 2018, Nelson made a controversial and unproven claim that Russian operatives had penetrated some of Florida’s election systems ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. He stated that more detailed information was classified. Nelson was criticized for the claim, with the Washington Post fact-checker and PolitiFact saying his claim was without evidence. In rating Nelson’s claim “Four Pinnochios”, the Washington Post wrote that Nelson misquoted a letter he wrote to the Department of Homeland Security and “inaccurately said Burr, Rubio and Warner reaffirmed his assertion that Russia has access to Florida voters’ records.” PolitiFact did not evaluate Nelson’s statements regarding alleged Russian election hacking because it could not “independently evaluate classified information,” but wrote that Nelson “offered little evidence to back up his point.”
Nelson stood by his claims of Russian election meddling on August 14, saying “It would be foolish to think that the Russians would not continue to do this as they did in Florida in 2016.” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and FBI director Christopher Wray refuted Nelson’s claims in a letter to Florida election officials. Later that August, “three people familiar with the intelligence” told NBC News “that there is a classified basis for Nelson’s assertion.” A government official familiar with the intelligence told McClatchy that Russian hackers had penetrated some of Florida’s county voting systems. The Tampa Bay Times reported that Nelson by leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee of a penetration of some of Florida’s voter registration databases. Amid criticism, Nelson defended his assertions about Russian penetration, saying he and fellow Florida Senator Marco Rubio had been instructed by Mark Warner and Richard Burr, leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to warn the Florida Secretary of State about Russian interference. Warner and Burr neither confirmed nor denied Nelson’s claim that Florida’s systems had been penetrated. When asked if Nelson had made a mistake by alleging Russian election interference in Florida’s elections, Marco Rubio took a similar line as Burr and Warner and said “Well, he’s engaged in a campaign so these things come up in campaigns. I really don’t want to politicize this issue. I don’t want to create the impression that there’s no problem, because that’s not accurate.” Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a conservative watchdog group, filed an ethics complaint against Nelson, saying that he “discussed classified information or made it up.”