TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A bitter and expensive clash between Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson appears to be heading to a recount, despite Scott's declaration of victory.
Nelson has not conceded. His campaign says it's preparing for a recount and will have observers in every one of the state's 67 counties to monitor the process.
Scott's lead narrowed slightly Wednesday morning to 30,161 votes out of more than 8.1 million cast — a margin of less than one half of 1 percent. Under state law in Florida, a recount is mandatory if the winning candidate's margin is 0.5 percentage points or less.
Chris Hartline, a spokesman for Scott's campaign, criticized the Nelson campaign for pushing ahead for a recount.
"This race is over," Hartline said. "It's a sad way for Bill Nelson to end his career. He is desperately trying to hold on to something that no longer exists."
But the recount is automatic unless Nelson agrees to forgo it. Counties have until Saturday to turn in their first set of unofficial returns. If the margin remains under 0.5 percent at that point, then Secretary of State Ken Detzner is required to order the recount.
Florida was the scene of a monumental recount battle in 2000 that pitted scores of lawyers against each other in the presidential race. George W. Bush won the presidency by 537 Florida votes over Al Gore after the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declared an end to the counting.
The stakes aren't as high this time, but a Scott win would end the political career of the 76-year-old Nelson, who is seeking a fourth Senate term.
Scott had declared victory during an election party in his home town of Naples late Tuesday when near-total results showed a thin lead, saying the campaign had been "divisive and tough" but that he vowed to change the direction of Washington, D.C.
"Change is never popular. I tried to use every effort to change the state of Florida and together we did," Scott said.
As the night wore on Nelson did not address his supporters in Orlando. Instead he had an aide say shortly after midnight that while many news reports were declaring Scott the victor, Nelson would have no statement until later Wednesday.
"This obviously is not the result Sen. Nelson and his campaign had worked so hard for," aide Pete Mitchell said.
The two candidates are heavyweights within each party: Nelson has withstood years of GOP dominance to remain the only Democrat elected statewide, while Scott is a two-term governor urged by President Donald Trump to take Nelson on.
Nelson was been viewed as one of the more vulnerable Democrats thanks to the formidable challenge from Scott, a former hospital chain CEO who has poured more than $60 million of his own fortune into his campaign.
When Scott first jumped in last April, the contest was seen as one of the marquee races in the nation. It was soon overshadowed by the governor's race: a vitriolic competition between Republican former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum that became a proxy battle between Trump and his Democratic opponents. DeSantis had trailed in almost every poll leading up to Election Day, but he parlayed Trump's strong endorsements in the Republican primary and general election to pull off an upset. Gillum would have been the first Democrat elected to the office since 1994, and the state's first-ever African-American governor.
Scott spent nearly two weeks off the campaign trail to respond to Hurricane Michael, which pummeled several counties in the Florida Panhandle and was responsible for dozens of deaths.
The two candidates disagreed on issues ranging from gun control to environmental policy to health care. Nelson was a strong supporter of the federal health care overhaul pushed into law by President Barack Obama, while Scott had called for the law to be repealed and replaced.
Scott, however, was forced to air a television ad in which he promised to retain the current plan's consumer protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Florida is among the states that are part of a lawsuit challenging the overhaul. The lawsuit was handled by Attorney General Pam Bondi and Scott maintained that he was not consulted about it before it was filed. But after he was aware of it, he remained largely silent until it became an issue in the campaign.
Differences between Scott and Nelson took a back seat to mutual disparagement and personal attacks, as well as Scott's links to Trump. At first Scott distanced himself from the president, but in the final week of the race he showed up at two political rallies Trump held in Florida.