Early life and education
In 1965, during the Vietnam War
, he joined the United States Army Reserve
. He served on active duty from 1968 to 1970, attaining the rank of captain
, and he remained in the Army until 1971. Nelson was admitted to the Florida bar in 1968, and began practicing law in Melbourne in 1970. In 1971, he worked as legislative assistant to Governor Reubin Askew
Space Shuttle Columbia
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. (April 2021)
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
mission from January 12 to 18, 1986. This mission was the last successful Space Shuttle
flight prior to the Challenger accident
, which occurred ten days after the end of this mission. In 1988, Nelson published a book about his space flight experience entitled Mission: An American Congressman's Voyage to Space
Early political career
Nelson in 1972 as a Florida State Representative
U.S. House of Representatives
1990 gubernatorial election
Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal
In 2000, Nelson announced that he would be running for the United States Senate
seat held by retiring Republican Connie Mack III
" law requires an incumbent office holder seeking another elective office to submit an irrevocable resignation from the office he or she currently holds unless that tenure would end anyway before the office holder would, if elected, assume the new position. The candidate may designate the effective date of the resignation to be in the future, but it must be no later than the date on which he or she would assume the new office. This law compelled Nelson to submit his resignation as Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal early in 2000 when he began to campaign for the U.S. Senate seat. He chose January 3, 2001, as the effective date of his resignation, as that was the date on which new Senators would be sworn in.
United States Senate
, Nelson ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Senator Connie Mack III
. He won the election, defeating U.S. Representative Bill McCollum
, who ran as the Republican
Following the 2004 election
, in which Republican George W. Bush
was re-elected and the Republican Party increased its majority in both the House and the Senate, Nelson was seen as vulnerable. He was a Democrat in a state that Bush had won, though by a margin of only five percentage points.
Evangelical Christian activist James Dobson
declared that Democrats, including Nelson, would be "in the 'bull's-eye'" if they supported efforts to block Bush's judicial nominees.
Nelson's refusal to support efforts in Congress to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case
was seen as "a great political issue" for a Republican opponent to use in mobilizing Christian conservatives against him.
, the former Florida Secretary of State and two-term U.S. representative, defeated three other candidates in the September 5 Republican primary. Harris's role in the 2000 presidential election
made her a polarizing figure. Many Florida Republicans were eager to reward her for her perceived party loyalty in the Bush-Gore election, while many Florida Democrats were eager to vote against her for the same reason.
In May, when the party found itself unable to recruit a candidate who could defeat Harris in the primary, many Republican activists admitted that the race was already lost.
Nelson focused on safe issues, portraying himself as a bipartisan centrist problem-solver.
He obtained the endorsement of all 22 of Florida's daily newspapers.
Harris failed to secure the endorsement of Jeb Bush
, who publicly stated that she could not win; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
, which had supported her in her House campaigns, did not endorse her in this race.
As the election approached, polls showed Harris trailing Nelson by 26 to 35 points.
Nelson transferred about $16.5 million in campaign funds to other Democratic candidates,
and won the election with 2,890,548 votes to Harris' 1,826,127 votes.
He won 57 out of the state's 67 counties.
Vice President Joe Biden
called Nelson crucial to President Obama's chances for winning Florida in 2012. In March 2011, Biden was reported as having said that if Nelson lost in 2012, "it means President Obama and the Democratic presidential ticket won't win the key battleground state, either."
Congressman Connie Mack IV
, the son of Nelson's direct predecessor in the Senate, won the Republican nomination. Nelson eventually defeated Mack with 55.2% of the vote to Mack's 42.2%.
Nelson ran for re-election in 2018. He ran unopposed in the Democratic Party primary, which took place on August 28, 2018.
He faced incumbent Florida Governor Rick Scott
(a Republican) in the general election on November 6, 2018. The extremely tight race—with a margin of less than 0.25% separating Nelson and Scott—triggered a manual recount as mandated by state law.
A recount showed that Scott had defeated Nelson by 10,033 votes.
A paper by scholars at the MIT Election Data and Science Lab concluded that the design of Broward County's 2018 general election ballots may have resulted in Nelson receiving 9,658 fewer votes than he otherwise would have received (which would have narrowed Scott’s margin of victory but not changed the result of the election). The study found that many voters did not see the U.S. Senate race on the lower left side of the ballot and, as a result, did not cast votes in that race.
- Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (Ranking Member)
- Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security
- Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet
- Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security
- Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard
- Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness
- Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security
- Committee on Armed Services
- Committee on Finance
- United States Senate Special Committee on Aging
On May 28, 2019, Nelson was appointed to serve on NASA's advisory council. Nelson was a member-at-large of the council, which advises on all major program and policy issues before the agency. His appointment was praised by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine
, who stated that "Nelson is a true champion for human spaceflight and will add tremendous value as we go to the Moon and on to Mars."
On February 22, 2021, reports emerged that President Biden was considering nominating Nelson to be the NASA Administrator,
then, on March 18, 2021, it was reported that Biden had selected Nelson for the position,
with Biden officially announcing the decision the next day.
Nelson's nomination received widespread support from members of Congress from both parties as well as the overall space industry.
The United States Senate in unanimous consent voted to confirm Nelson to be NASA Administrator on April 29, 2021. Nelson was sworn in on May 3, 2021, by Vice President Harris
Nelson was often considered to be a moderate Democrat
He has styled himself as a centrist
during his various campaigns.
During Nelson's 2018 re-election campaign, challenger Rick Scott characterized Nelson as a "socialist"; PolitiFact
described the assertion as "pants-on-fire" false.
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 37% conservative and 64% liberal.
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 in 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."
In 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 had voted with President Donald Trump
's positions 42.5% of the time as of June 2018.
On several occasions, Nelson has voted to reduce or eliminate the estate tax
notably in June 2006, when he was one of four Democrats voting for a failed (57–41) cloture motion on a bill to eliminate the tax.
Nelson works with government storm trackers during a hurricane-hunter flight into the center of Hurricane Charley in August 2004
Nelson voted against a Republican plan to extend the Bush tax cuts
to all taxpayers. Instead, Nelson supported extending the tax cuts for those with incomes below $250,000.
Nelson voted for the Buffett Rule
in April 2012. Speaking of his support for the Buffett Rule, Nelson said he voted to raise the minimum tax rate on incomes over $1 million per year to 30% in order to reduce the budget deficit and to make the tax code more fair. Nelson said, "In short, tax fairness for deficit reduction just makes common sense."
Nelson voted in 2011 to end Bush-era tax cuts for those earning over $250,000 but voted for $143 billion in tax cuts, unemployment benefits, and other economic measures.
In 2013 Nelson advocated tax reform, which he defined as "getting rid of special interest tax breaks and corporate subsidies." Stating needed qualities of said reform, he listed "simplicity, fairness, and economic growth".
He and Susan Collins
introduced legislation in 2015 that would "make it easier for smaller businesses to cut administrative costs by forming multiple-employer 401(k)-style plans."
Nelson was frequently interested in product safety issues, and as such was frequently engaged in oversight and criticism of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
. For example, he repeatedly opposed President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the commission.
Nelson voted in favor of the Biggert–Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012
, which required the National Flood Insurance Program
to raise insurance rates for some properties at high risk of flooding to better reflect true flood risk costs and keep the program solvent.
In 2014, following an outcry by Florida property owners facing steep flood insurance-rate hikes,
Nelson supported legislation that would provide retroactive refunds for taxpayers who had experienced large hikes in their flood-insurance rates due to the sale or purchase of a home. The proposal would also cap average annual premium increases at 15 to 18 percent and allow insurance-rates subsidies based on current flood maps.
In 2010, PolitiFact found that Nelson had flip-flopped on the issue of earmarks
, pushing for a moratorium on the practice after saying that "earmarks were an important part of creating jobs and growing Florida's economy."
In September 2014, Nelson said the U.S. should hit back at ISIS
immediately because "the U.S. is the only one that can put together a coalition to stop this group that's intent on barbaric cruelty."
He supported the "Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act." Introduced in 2013 and again in 2015, it would keep guns from people with suspected terrorist links.
Standing outside the Orlando Pulse nightclub
immediately after the June 2016 massacre
there, Nelson called Omar Mateen
a "lone wolf," and when asked if it was an act of jihad
he said he could not confirm that.
Shortly afterwards, citing intelligence sources, Nelson said there was apparently "a link to Islamic radicalism
," perhaps ISIS
Nelson later said on the Senate floor that "terrorists...want to divide people" but that Mateen had instead "brought people together.
Following the massacre, Nelson and Barbara Mikulski
supported an increase in FBI funding.
A year after the Orlando massacre, Nelson attended a memorial at which he reiterated that it had "united Orlando and it united the country."
He supported the Terrorist Firearms Prevention Act of 2016.
In 2016, he called the House Zika bill "a disaster," complaining that it would take "$500 million in health care funding away from Puerto Rico" and limit access to "birth control services needed to help curb the spread of the virus and prevent terrible birth defects."
In 2017 Nelson wrote a letter to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC) asking them to prioritize Zika
In September 2017, Nelson and Susan Collins
(R-ME) introduced the Reinsurance Act of 2017, an effort "to stabilize the health insurance marketplace." It would provide $2.25 billion to "reduce risk for insurance companies by providing funds to insurers for high-risk enrollees" and "help keep premiums in check."
In January 2017, Nelson wrote President Trump a letter protesting his immigration order
. "Regardless of the constitutionality or legality of this Executive Order
," he wrote, "I am deeply concerned that it may do more harm than good in our fight to keep America safe." U.S. success in the fight against terrorism, he argued, "depends on the cooperation and assistance of Muslims who reject radicalism and violence. Whether intended or not, this Executive Order risks alienating the very people we rely upon in the fight against terror."
Space exploration and NASA
President Barack Obama
and Nelson visit Kennedy Space Center in April 2010
In March 2010, Nelson complained that President Obama had made a mistake in canceling NASA's Constellation program
He argued against the $6-billion Commercial Crew Development
proposed by the presidential administration and for a NASA-developed heavy-lift rocket built on the Constellation's inheritance (which was later included in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act
and became SLS).
11 years later, then-NASA administrator Charles Bolden
commented that Neslon's skepticism was common in the Congress and refused to call him an opponent of the commercial crew.
On July 7, 2011, it was reported that Nelson said Congress "starved" the space program of funding for several years, but suggested that the situation was turning around and called on the Obama administration to push for NASA funding.
In September 2011 Nelson, together with Republican Kay Hutchison
, led the push to continue the development of Constellation's Ares V
SLV in the form of Space Launch System
In 2016, Sen. Nelson brokered a bipartisan compromise on ending import of Russian RD-181
During his own confirmation hearing in 2021, Nelson reversed his earlier stances on the Commercial Crew Program and desirability of a NASA administrator without STEM education, and praised Bridenstine (the latter endorsed him earlier).
On April 4, 2013, Nelson announced that he no longer opposed same-sex marriage. He wrote, "The civil rights and responsibilities for one must pertain to all. Thus, to discriminate against one class and not another is wrong for me. Simply put, if The Lord made homosexuals as well as heterosexuals, why should I discriminate against their civil marriage? I shouldn't, and I won't."
In March 2017, Nelson co-sponsored the Israel Anti-Boycott Act
, Senate Bill 720, which permits U.S. states to enact laws that would require contractors to sign a pledge saying that they would not boycott any goods from Israel, or their contracts would be terminated
In April 2017, Nelson called for tougher economic sanctions against Venezuela
, which he called an "economic basket case."
He opposed a 2009 spending bill until his concerns about certain provisions in the bill related to Cuba were assuaged by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner
, who assured him that those provisions "would not amount to a major reversal of the decades-old U.S. policy of isolating the communist-run island."
In response to the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting
, Nelson expressed remorse that the Democrats' Feinstein Amendment, which would have banned the sale of guns to individuals on the terrorist watch list
, and a Republican proposal to update background checks and to create an alert for law enforcement when an individual is placed on the terrorist watch list, had failed to pass the Senate. He stated "What am I going to tell the community of Orlando that is trying to come together in the healing? Sadly, what I am going to have to tell them is that the NRA won again."
Both he and Marco Rubio
supported the bills.
In October 2017, after the Las Vegas shooting
, Nelson and Dianne Feinstein
sponsored a bill to ban bump stocks
for assault weapons. "I'm a hunter and have owned guns my whole life," he said. "But these automatic weapons are not for hunting, they are for killing."
Nelson spread misinformation via Twitter
after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting
, falsely claiming that shooter Nikolas Cruz wore a gas mask and tossed smoke grenades as he shot people. After an April 2018 shooting in Liberty City, Nelson claimed that assault weapons had been used in the shooting, when in fact handguns were used.
In July 2017, Nelson introduced legislation to cut interest rates on student loans to 4 percent.
Nelson and Mel Martinez co-sponsored a 2006 bill banning oil drilling off Florida's Gulf Coast. In 2017 he said he wanted the ban to continue to 2027, but that it was "vigorously opposed by the oil industry." Along with 16 Florida congress members from both parties, he urged the Trump administration to keep the eastern Gulf of Mexico off limits to oil and gas drilling. "Drilling in this area," they wrote, "threatens Florida's multibillion-dollar tourism-driven economy and is incompatible with the military training and weapons testing that occurs there."
In 2015, after Gov. Rick Scott
directed Florida officials to stop using the terms "climate change" and "global warming," Nelson introduced an amendment to prevent federal agencies from censoring official communications on climate change. It "fell to a point of order after a 51-49 vote, though Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) joined Nelson in supporting the amendment."
After Hurricane Maria
in 2017, Nelson and Marco Rubio agreed that Trump had taken too long to send the U.S. military to Puerto Rico to take part in relief efforts. "For one week we were slow at the switch," Nelson said in San Juan. "The most efficient organization in a time of disaster is an organization that is already capable of long supply lines in combat. And that's the U.S. military."
After Hurricane Maria led many Puerto Ricans to flee to Florida, Nelson encouraged them to register to vote there.
Security and surveillance
In 2007, Nelson was the only Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee to vote against an amendment to withhold funds for the use by the CIA of enhanced interrogation techniques
on terrorism suspects. His vote, combined with those of all Republican members of the committee, killed the measure.
Campaign donations from Saudi Arabia
Russian hack claim
On August 7, 2018, Nelson claimed that Russian operatives had penetrated some of Florida's election systems ahead of the 2018 midterm elections; the claim was contentious during his 2018 re-election bid.
He stated that more detailed information was classified.
At the time, fact-checkers did not have evidence to backup Nelson's claims.
However, later that August, "three people familiar with the intelligence" told NBC News "that there is a classified basis for Nelson's assertion", because "VR Systems had been penetrated in August 2016 by hackers working for" GRU
A government official familiar with the intelligence told McClatchy
that Russian hackers had penetrated some of Florida's county voting systems in 2016. DHS
Sendek said that the agency has "not seen any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure." The Tampa Bay Times
reported that Nelson had been told by leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee of a penetration of some of Florida's voter registration databases in 2016.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen
and FBI director Christopher Wray
denied Nelson's claims in a letter to Florida election officials.
Amid the 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, while Rubio "has taken a line on the controversy similar to Burr and Warner's."
The 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."
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 election, which concluded in April 2019, found that Russian intelligence officials "sent spearphishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. election," and that "at least one Florida county" was successfully penetrated.
In August 2018, federal authorities said they saw no signs of any "new or ongoing compromises" of state or local election systems.
In May 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis
said that voter databases in two counties had been successfully penetrated ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
In 1972, Nelson married Grace Cavert. The couple have two adult children: Charles William "Bill Jr." Nelson
and Nan Ellen Nelson.
Florida State House of Representatives election 1972
Florida 9th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1978
Florida 9th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1980
Florida 11th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1982
Florida 11th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1984
Florida 11th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1986
Florida 11th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1988
Florida Governor, Democratic primary election 1990
Florida State Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal election 1994
Florida State Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal election 1998
Florida U.S. Senate election 2000
Florida U.S. Senate election 2006
Florida U.S. Senate election 2012
Florida U.S. Senate election 2018
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