Nelson sweeps through Panhandle

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U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson with supporters in Tallahassee Tuesday.

Congress has gone on its August recess, giving U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson the opportunity to spend two days working on something he’s specialized in throughout his lengthy career: retail politics.

Starting early Monday morning in Pensacola, the three-term Democratic senator hit more than a half-dozen spots in the Florida Panhandle before flying back to Orlando on Tuesday evening from Tallahassee.

After leaving Pensacola, Nelson made two stops in Walton County and two in Bay County,  and visited Bonifay and Chipley before winding up in Tallahassee.

He can tell you about dredging plans at the Port of Panama City as well as roads and a sewage plant “in desperate need” of repair in Esto, a town of fewer than 400 in Washington County.

But that’s classic Nelson, the Democrats’ only statewide office holder, who has never shied away from the rural conservative regions of the state even though voters there have become increasingly stalwart Republicans.

He’s comfortable in the Panhandle, a region where his great-great grandfather got off a boat in Port St. Joe and made his way to Orange Hill, a tiny farming community in Washington County.

He explained his campaigning style during his successful 2012 re-election campaign against former U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers.

“People wonder why I do well in North Florida — where a lot of national Democrats don’t necessarily do well — because I work it like a dog,” Nelson said at the time. “I go into those little rural communities and hold those town hall meetings so that I can hear from them.”

The efforts don’t mean Nelson will carry many counties west of Tallahassee in his 2018 re-election bid. But based on his prior results, he can keep the vote close in places like Gulf and Washington counties and perhaps reduce the margin in counties like Bay.

Nelson is expected to face Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s formidable money and messaging machine next year, with some suggesting this will be Nelson’s greatest challenge.

Asked to give odds on next year’s race, Nelson demurred — sort of.

“I’m not one to go around and crow and huff and puff and beat my chest, but I know how to campaign. I’ll leave it at that,” he said.

By Lloyd Dunkelberger.