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Greatest hits of Florida's U.S. Senate race

By Katie Sanders
Published on Monday, November 5th, 2012 at 9:47 a.m.

The deluge of advertising and attacks in Sunshine State’s U.S. Senate race will be over soon. Tuesday we learn which candidate will serve alongside Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a two-term Democratic incumbent, has been intensely targeted by outside spending groups for his vote in favor of the new health care law. His challenger, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, R-Fort Myers, is the descendant of a former senator and baseball icon of the same name. Mack’s youthful run-ins made for embarrassing campaign ads this year.

It seems like PolitiFact Florida has fact-checked it all in this race, with allegations of tax-dodging cows, youthful bar brawls, stints at Hooters and a heaping of health care hyperbole. Here, we review the greatest hits of the Mack-Nelson race.

Health care and campaign finance

You’ve probably heard some variation of the following while watching your favorite TV shows this year: Bill Nelson was "the deciding vote" for the health care law that forces "20 million people to lose their current insurance coverage" and "cuts Medicare by $716 billion." Oh, let’s not forget the (Pants on Fire) claim that it’s the "largest tax increase in history on the middle class."

We heard these over-the-top attacks from Mack, super PACs and other groups that want Nelson out of office. Those groups include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads, American Commitment and the 60 Plus Association.

The millions spent against Nelson this year -- often from undisclosed donors -- led the Center for Responsive Politics to rank him No. 8 in a list of candidates that attracted the most "shadow" money.

Here’s a quick recap of our fact-checks on the misleading health care claims lobbed at Nelson.

Mack’s colorful past

Nelson didn’t just sit back and take it. He responded by shining a light on Mack for decades-old misadventures and work history. Nelson aired his first TV ad against Mack before Mack even cleared his Republican primary.

"Florida, meet Connie Mack IV. A promoter for Hooters with a history of bar room brawling, altercations and road rage," the ad said.

Indeed, Mack worked from 1994 to 2000 as a marketing executive for LTP Management, which owned and operated several Hooters franchises in Florida, as well as Dan Marino's Town Tavern and Lulu's Bait Shack. Mack never received a paycheck directly from Hooters, but his campaign acknowledged that he worked on Hooters’ behalf.

As for the incidents of road rage and bar room brawling, Mack, 45, was in his 20s when he was arrested for resisting an officer without violence at a Jacksonville night club. He also got into a brawl with then-professional baseball player Ron Gant at an Atlanta bar called Calico Jack’s and  got into two road rage incidents, the details for which are incomplete.

PolitiFact Florida rated Nelson’s kitchen-sink claim Mostly True.

Hundreds of votes for taxes?

Mack posted his own video response denouncing Nelson for wanting "to talk about Hooters and what I did as a kid."

"Bill Nelson cast the deciding vote for Obamacare and voted to raise our taxes 150 times - I voted against Obamacare and to cut taxes," Mack said.

We determined that Mack employed creative, somewhat absurd math to tally 150 such votes. About half of the votes he counted are non-binding resolutions, for one thing. Mack also included duplicative votes on the same bill and votes against a tax cut. Further, he ignored the times when Nelson voted against tax increases or extending tax cuts.  We rated it False.

Mack was unfazed by the ruling, repeating the taxes line over and over again during his only debate against Nelson on Oct. 17, 2012, (and earning another False). Then he "admitted" his mistake in an email to supporters with the headline "We were wrong."

"For months you've heard us say that Bill Nelson has voted in favor of higher taxes over 150 times. As it turns out, we were wrong," the email says. "I hope you'll forgive our mistake. In fact, it turns out Bill Nelson actually voted in favor of higher taxes 272 times. That's right -- Bill Nelson didn't vote for higher taxes over 150 times. He did it 272 times."

See how he tweaked the wording to say "voted in favor of higher taxes"? We noticed, and we still rated this claim False. Again, we found Mack’s tally inflated and misleading.

The stimulus package

Of course, there’s no denying Nelson voted in favor of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package in 2009. Mack voted against it.

Mack made Nelson’s stimulus vote the focal point of his first attack ad.

"When Bill Nelson voted for the stimulus, he voted for millions in wasteful spending, including spending our tax dollars to see how monkeys react under the influence of cocaine," the ad said. "Hey Bill Nelson, stop monkeying around with our tax dollars."

The ad based its attack on the work of Wake Forest University researchers that applied for and received a grant paid for by stimulus money from the National Institutes of Health; the researchers were studying drug addiction. Nelson voted for passage of the stimulus package, but he had no say over which research projects got money as a result. We rated the attack Mostly False.

Despite the threat of howling cocaine monkeys, Nelson invoked the stimulus during the debate to attack Mack as a hypocrite.

"(Mack) rails against the stimulus bill, he didn’t tell you he wrote a letter to the Department of Transportation in order to get $29 million in stimulus for his congressional district," Nelson said.

Yep -- that happened. Mack’s letter, dated September 2009, asked the federal government for $29 million to build a project to introduce high-speed rail transportation to Southwest Florida. Mack suggested it would be a boon for his home region.

"This project will establish a connection between Southwest Florida economic centers and the seaports of Tampa and Manatee counties, advancing the region’s economic competitiveness," Mack wrote. We rated Nelson’s claim True.

Perfect attendance? Hardly.

In another instance of Nelson borrowing attack lines from Mack’s primary opponents, Nelson said during the debate that Mack missed 178 votes in 2012, "one of the worst voting records" in Congress. We rated it Mostly True.

Mack came back with his own dis on Nelson’s voting record.

As far as my voting record, Senator, you should be straight with people," Mack said. "I’ve got a 94 percent voting record.  You’ve got a 92 percent voting record." Those numbers checked out, so we rated it True.

Also, we rated Mack’s longtime allegation that Nelson votes 98 percent of the time with Obama as Mostly True.

Allegations of tax dodging

Each candidate took shots at the other for taking advantage of tax loopholes.

Mack rehashed a hokey TV ad from American Crossroads. The ad, which depicted Nelson as a goofy cartoon farmer, was based on a Tampa Bay Times story.

The ad claimed Nelson "leased land that he owned for six cows, taking advantage of an agricultural tax loophole to dodge $43,000 in taxes just last year."

We found the ad twists its facts about Nelson’s greenbelt exemption to make viewers believe he is dodging his taxes -- a derogatory expression that doesn’t characterize the situation. We rated it Half True.

The ad didn’t stop there, going further to suggest "he sold the land for home development, pocketing at least $1.4 million." The ad wrongly implies that Nelson sold his entire 55-acre pasture at a higher tax value for home development. Really, Nelson sold two lots that were taxed at the lower greenbelt level, but that total does not get to $1.4 million. That total takes into account two additional sales of residential lots adjoining the pasture. For not telling the whole story, we rated this Crossroads claim Mostly False.

In their one debate, Nelson grew visibly irritated with Mack’s ribbing about the cows on his pasture. He offered a rebuttal to the cow claim when a panelist asked him about a different topic.

"I’m going to answer that in detail," Nelson said, "but I’m first going to say not only has it been a cow pasture for 60 years, (but) why don’t we ask him why he takes two homestead exemptions, which is directly contrary to Florida’s Constitution that says that a husband and wife can only take one homestead exemption?"

Mack and his wife, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., have a unique situation, representing two different states in Washington. Each owns a home in his or her respective state, and each home has an exemption. Nelson asserted Connie Mack takes two homestead exemptions, which would not be lawful. The property appraiser in Mack’s district reviewed his case and found it to be appropriate. We rated the claim Mostly False.

Mack’s Penny Plan

Finally, Mack often touted his "Penny Plan," which would reduce federal spending by 1 percent a year for six years and then cap spending at 18 percent of GDP.

In a mailer, Mack said his plan would balance the budget by 2019 and "continues to gain support" in Congress. We rated that Half True. Experts told us the math works, but pointed out there’s no road map for how those cuts would be made. Plus, it’s not accurate to say the plan is gaining steam when it has not been heard in committee and no co-sponsors have signed on since 2011.

Nelson used the plan against Mack during the Senate debate. Nelson said the plan would cut more than $200 billion in Medicare, $1 trillion in Social Security and $3 trillion in defense. Nelson’s numbers checked out, but he could have provided more context about what the plan does. We rated that claim Mostly True.

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Sources:

See individual fact-checks for complete sources.

Researchers: Brittany Alana Davis, Katie Sanders, Amy Sherman

Names in this article: Connie Mack, Bill Nelson

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