Senate Majority PAC
Says Bill Nelson is "one of America’s most independent senators."

Senate Majority PAC on Monday, May 21st, 2018 in in an ad

Is Bill Nelson one of America's most independent senators?

Senate Majority PAC ad. (YouTube)

For weeks, Gov. Rick Scott has hammered incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson for voting with the most liberal members of Congress. But a new ad from a Democratic PAC supporting Nelson’s re-election bid portrays Nelson as an independent voice.

"He served his country as an Army captain and as an astronaut on the shuttle Columbia," the narrator says. "And as one of America’s most independent senators, Bill Nelson has delivered for Florida."

Scott, expected to be Nelson’s toughest re-election challenger yet, has repeatedly tried to poke holes in this characterization — saying that Nelson moved closer in step with the Democratic Party in recent years, a departure from his earliest days in the House.

Given the competing claims before voters, we wanted to get to the bottom of his record.

Is Bill Nelson one of America’s most independent senators, as the Senate Majority PAC says? While it’s difficult if not impossible to define independence, multiple studies show Nelson voted against his party more so than other Democrats. However, other experts cautioned that a moderate or centrist voting record does not necessarily equate to being independent.

What do voting studies say?

As evidence of this claim, the Senate Majority PAC cited a Congressional Quarterly voting study from 2017. According to that study, Nelson voted with his party 88 percent of the time during 2017.

Only Sens. Joe Donnelly, Susan Collins, Angus King, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, Mark Warner and Joe Manchin voted with their party less often, according to that analysis. (The lowest percentage was 64 percent, from Manchin.)

"In 2017, Nelson was tied with Senator (Tom) Carper in being ranked by CQ as the eighth-most independent senator," said spokesman Chris Hayden.

Congressional Quarterly study didn’t actually rank the lawmakers by independence based on these findings. That’s just how political groups are framing it.

Nelson has been in the Senate since 2001, so we wanted to take a longer view of his CQ average. The average of his CQ score for voting with the party is 89 percent.

His lowest Senate scores came in 2002 and 2006, at 77 percent and 76 percent, respectively. His highest level of support was in 2013 and 2014, at 98 percent.

Another analysis by voteview.com concluded Nelson was one of the most conservative Democrats while in office. (Political science experts have told PolitiFact Florida that voteview.com is the best site for mapping ideological locations for elected officials.)


Vote View analysis


More conservative than 89 percent of Democrats


More conservative than 89 percent of Democrats


More conservative than 92 percent of Democrats


More conservative than 88 percent of Democrats


More conservative than 84 percent of Democrats


More conservative than 92 percent of Democrats


More conservative than 92 percent of Democrats


More conservative than 94 percent of Democrats


More conservative than 93 percent of Democrats

The studies suggest Nelson votes with his party-line less than most other Democrats. But is that evidence he is "one of America’s most independent senators?"

We reached out to several Florida political science experts for their take on the claim. One theme from their responses is that it’s hard to define and measure "independence."

Steven Tauber, the director of the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida, said "independence" is a subjective and multidimensional term.

"If we equate independence with a ‘moderate’ or ‘centrist’ legislative record, then I think it is definitely fair to say that on his legislative record, Nelson is one of the independent members of the Senate," he said.

However, being moderate or centrist does not always equate to being "independent."

"To me, (independence) implies more than occasionally voting against one's party; it means speaking honestly and working with members of the other party on legislation," said Gregory Koger, a political science professor at the University of Miami. "These are measurable things, but I don't know if anyone has done it yet."

To bolster this idea, the Senate Majority PAC pointed to several newspaper editorials endorsing Nelson in his 2012 Senate run that touted his ability to work across the aisle.

"Sen. Nelson has repeatedly shown an ability to work across the aisle on Florida’s behalf, the kind of voice Florida needs in the Senate," the Miami Herald editorial board wrote in 2012. "With Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, he successfully co-sponsored the legislation to ensure that NASA would remain committed to a space exploration program. And with former Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, he co-authored a bill to keep Florida’s beaches safe from oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico."

The Fort Myers News-Press editorial said, "(Nelson) has a history of bipartisan cooperation, which is fundamental right now as Americans demand an end to gridlock, which threatens to take Americans off a fiscal cliff, come the end of the year due to expiring tax cuts."

Nelson and fellow Republican Sen. Marco Rubio have worked together on numerous issues throughout the years. Most recently, the pair has co-authored letters regarding Puerto Rico, introduced a bill addressing the opioid epidemic and introduced legislation to proactively mitigate threats of violence at schools.

Rubio has said he won’t campaign against Nelson but still supports Scott.

How does the GOP’s argument fit in?

Scott’s team has been watering down Nelson’s moderate image with claims that he has grown to be a definite party-line voter.

To back this point up, Scott’s team compiled 28 years of party-unity voting data from Congressional Quarterly. That data shows Nelson started out voting an average of 50 percent in the 1980s with the Democratic party and now has voted with Democrats nearly 90 percent of the time for the past decade.

The political environment has shifted substantially, to say the least, said Susan MacManus, a professor emeritus at the University of South Florida. It is isn’t just Nelson who has grown more partisan.

"The increase is natural," she said. "Congress is more partisan."

Our ruling

The Senate Majority PAC said Nelson is "one of America’s most independent senators."

There are multiple ways to conceptualize independence, so any claim stating that a lawmaker is independent requires context.

If we liken independence with a "moderate" legislative record, then it is fair to say that on his legislative record, Nelson is one of the more independent Senate members. Analyses suggest Nelson voted with his party-line less than other Democrats.

That said, experts cautioned there’s more that goes in to being an independent then just a moderate or centrist voting record — including having an open dialogue with both sides of the aisle, which can be hard to measure.

We rate this claim Half True.

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Says Bill Nelson is "one of America’s most independent senators."
in an ad
Monday, May 21, 2018