POLITICS AUGUST 6, 2011
Tallahassee, Florida—Since getting elected last year, Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, has had a rough go of it. In his short tenure, he has been sued by teachers and law enforcement unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, physician groups, environmentalists, advocates for the disabled, and even a Republican state legislator. He’s also managed to irritate the media and public protesters, which only muddied his already tarnished image. He is now a regular punch line on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” which has likened his bald visage to Harry Potter’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort. “When you make tough decisions, some people don’t like it,” Scott explained to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee on Fox News recently, after the former presidential contender confessed he was “stunned” by Scott’s political toxicity.
Other Florida governors have had bad opening acts. Democrat Bob Graham and Republican Jeb Bush both flopped with voters initially and then staged dramatic rebounds. But Scott is in danger of careening into political oblivion before he escapes his first year, and his lagging numbers pose a dilemma for his party. Unless Scott can engineer a reversal of fortune soon, the political neophyte who launched himself onto the national stage by attacking President Obama’s health-care reform could become an unwitting variable in Obama’s re-election. “Florida is in deep trouble right now, and anybody who is governor is going to be unpopular,” says John French, a Tallahassee elections lawyer who worked for Scott’s campaign. “But he’s got to find a way to stop tripping over his own feet.”
BEFORE ENTERING OFFICE, all many voters knew about Scott was that the Texas transplant had built the nation’s largest hospital chain, Columbia/HCA, and resigned as CEO in 1997 amid the largest Medicare fraud investigation in the nation’s history. Scott was never charged in the scheme that culminated in $2 billion worth of fines paid by the company, but the controversy dogged his gubernatorial campaign. A smaller number of voters might have remembered when Scott re-launched himself on the national stage in 2008 as the financier behind an ad-buying campaign called Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, which was critical of President Obama’s agenda for health care reform. Thanks to the endeavor, Scott was able to garner Tea Party support by claiming some credit for defeating the “public option” in the final reform package. It also helped him blindside the chummy but scandal-plagued Florida Republican establishment, which he defeated by pouring $73 million of his own personal wealth into a late-stage gubernatorial bid.
But, while every other Republican statewide candidate posted double-digit victories, Scott barely squeezed past Democrat Alex Sink, winning by just 61,550 votes out of 5.36 million votes cast—or 1.2 percent. Unlike Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or New Jersey’s Chris Christie, “he didn’t have any political capital going into office,” admits Scott’s pollster and political strategist, Tony Fabrizio. And any goodwill Scott retained soon went out the window with a series of miscalculations following his election.
The trouble began when Scott hired glitzy presidential event planners and private security for a two-day inaugural party in Tallahassee. To veteran Florida media and political hands, the event made Scott appear out of step with the small-town pace of the isolated capital city. Soon after, Scott had another mishap when he held a private dinner with legislative leaders in the governor’s mansion and alienated journalists by locking them outside the gates after they had refused to let his office hand-pick a pool reporter. Then, when he approved the state budget in May, Scott committed another snafu at the signing ceremony, which took place in a sprawling retirement community called The Villages. Before the governor even arrived, his staff ordered local deputies to remove protesters from a public square. A week later, the governor’s office admitted it had erred, but the scene provided yet more fodder for Democratic activists to paint Scott as an aloof, aristocratic corporate raider at the seat of government.
Policy, though, has also been a big part of Scott’s problem. He has largely stayed true to his campaign promises, many of which poll well individually; He pushed for an Arizona-style immigration law, led the Republican charge against government unions, imposed drug-tests for food stamp recipients and state employees, cut taxes on businesses, scrapped a $2.7 billion high-speed rail project Obama endorsed, and stripped tenure from new teachers. Yet Fabrizio admits Scott is paying the political price for enacting conservative priorities that are easier for supporters to rally behind only in the abstract. “People always want spending cuts. People always want smaller government—until the rubber hits the road,” he said. “Then we see the most fascinating effect in polling, which is, ‘Don’t cut my spending.’”
And so, eight months into his term, Scott has become arguably the least-popular governor in the country. He was polled sitting at 33 percent job approval in mid-June, according a to Democratic-aligned Public Policy Polling survey, which also found that 59 percent of voters disapproved of him. (A more recent poll released by Quinnipiac University found that his job approval rating has since gone up, but only slightly, to 35 percent.) Other recent surveys have found his support below 30 percent. Worse, a whopping 64 percent of independent voters indicated that they disapproved of Scott in the PPP poll.
SCOTT’S POLITICAL ADVISERS say they expected the backlash—that the governor intentionally front-loaded his first-year agenda with controversial policy objectives that could alienate voters, giving him three more years to make a recovery. “The strategic decision was made to try to bite off as much as we can in the first session,” says Fabrizio. “Then, in the subsequent sessions, it allows you to not take as much heat and as many arrows from interest groups. And that allows you to focus on the other things that help you.”
This strategy might work for Scott, since he isn’t up for re-election until 2014, but it could have devastating effects for Republicans in the 2012 presidential race: The same PPP poll from June found that 40 percent of Florida voters considered themselves less likely to vote for a Republican for president next year thanks specifically to Scott. This won’t be helped when the GOP contenders for the White House participate in a CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa in September, or when the “Presidency 5” debate and straw poll take place in Orlando two weeks later, or when Florida hosts the first Republican presidential debate after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. After all, the media will be focused on the state, giving ample opportunity for attention to be drawn to Scott’s faltering administration, yet the candidates will need to embrace the governor, with his conservative bona fides, in a show of party unity. To top it all off, Florida will assume the national spotlight by hosting Republican National Convention in Tampa in August 2012. “He’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, says of the governor. “You get to see with Rick Scott the type of government you’re going to get with these presidential candidates. Is this the kind of president you want? Rick Scott?”
To be sure, not everyone is buying that Scott will be a drag on his party next year. “You poll what Rick Scott is doing and it climbs off the charts. You poll him, and it’s down [at] 30 percent. It just doesn’t add up—yet,” says Christopher Kise, a Republican lawyer who worked for Crist and helped coordinate Scott’s transition. “The vast majority of voters are going to take a step back and judge the president by how he handled the economy and the immense challenges he inherited with foreign policy,” says Democratic political strategist Steve Schale, who managed Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008. “They’ll make their decision based on that, not on Rick Scott.”
But, with campaign action soon heading to the Sunshine State and Scott’s political fortunes unlikely to turn around anytime soon, there is still cause for concern. At the very least, the governor’s rocky tenure could be an important factor in determining which way Florida goes in 2012. At the worst, for Republicans, it could be the decisive one.
Aaron Deslatte is the Tallahassee bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun Sentinel.