- George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
On Capitol Hill for a day of health care-related meetings and media appearances on Tuesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott snagged some camera time at a marble rotunda frequently used by members of the Senate for live TV shots.
Despite the Senatorial trappings, the two-term Republican governor insisted it’s too early to contemplate a potential 2018 run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Many Democrats and Republicans aren’t buying Scott’s coyness.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a George Soros-funded liberal PAC have been attacking Scott as if he were a full-fledged candidate for months. Republicans from President Donald Trump on down have urged Scott to run, and potential GOP Senate candidates have steered clear of the race in deference to the governor.
The DSCC, tasked with helping Nelson and nine other Senate Democrats win re-election next year in states that voted for Trump, recently launched an online anti-Scott ad campaign depicting a father selling his car and a mother selling her wedding ring to pay for their sick daughter’s health care.
“What will Rick Scott’s health care plan cost you?” says the ad, linking Scott’s views to unpopular Republican health-care legislation.
The Democratic committee and American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC that has received $4 million since 2013 from liberal hedge fund billionaire Soros, both welcomed Scott to Washington on Tuesday with news releases accusing him of being a self-serving politician.
“The worst kept secret in Florida politics is that Rick Scott is desperate to continue his political career,” said American Bridge President Jessica Mackler, whose group regularly sends “trackers” to Scott’s events and has fired off 10 anti-Scott releases since April. “Rick Scott’s record in Florida is the same as his record in business — putting himself and his wealthy cronies first and the middle class last, and we’re going to spend the next year and a half holding him accountable.”
Scott faces term limits as governor in 2018 and is widely expected to run for Senate when Nelson seeks a fourth term.
Trump put in a plug for a Scott Senate bid when he visited Miami’s Little Havana on June 16 to outline trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.
“He’s doing a great job. I hope he runs for the Senate,” Trump said of Scott, who was seated on stage near the president. “I know I’m not supposed to say that. I hope he runs for the Senate. Rick, are you running?”
The crowd cheered and Scott smiled.
Trump turned to Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and said “Marco, let’s go, come on. We got to get him to — I hope he runs for the Senate.”
Rubio, asked at the Capitol last week if he thinks Scott should run, said, “He’ll have to make that decision. Campaign season isn’t here yet.”
In an interview with The Palm Beach Post during his recent Washington visit, Scott downplayed the presidential plea to enter the Senate race.
“He did that to me a week before, too. He did that at that infrastructure conference. That’s President Trump. He’s a friend,” Scott said.
“It’s not until 2018,” Scott said of the Senate race. “Most politicians think about the next job. It’s only 2017. Remember, I didn’t get into the governor’s race until April (of the election year, 2010).”
With near-universal name recognition in Florida, a job that allows him to be in the spotlight whenever he wants, an ability to raise large sums of money and a history of plowing his personal wealth into a campaign if needed, Scott has the luxury of waiting to announce a candidacy.
“He’s in the catbird seat. He should take all the time he needs,” said Republican lobbyist and fundraiser Brian Ballard, who said he believes Scott will ultimately decide to run for Senate.
Many in Washington are anxious for Scott to get in the race now, said Scott Reed, the chief political strategist for the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“We view Gov. Scott as the model candidate. We hope he makes the race,” said Reed, who added, “We understand he’s doing things his way.”
Scott’s wait has frozen other potential Republican Senate candidates.
“Rick Scott is the obvious choice for the Republican nomination for the Senate in 2018. I don’t think any serious candidate will even look at that race until Rick Scott makes a decision,” said Republican consultant Brad Herold, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida.
A Scott-Nelson contest would pit two of the state’s most successful elected officials against each other in a race different from anything either has experienced.
Nelson first won the Senate seat in an open race in 2000 after former Republican Sen. Connie Mack III opted not to run. Nelson, a former congressman and elected state treasurer and insurance commissioner, defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum that year.
He then won re-election against Republican U.S. Reps. Katherine Harris in 2006 and Connie Mack IV in 2012 – challengers who both had high profiles but who many in the GOP say were flawed and failed to truly test Nelson.
Scott was a political unknown who spent more than $70 million of his own money in 2010 to upset McCollum for the Republican nomination for governor, then win a close general election over Democrat Alex Sink during a national Republican wave. Scott narrowly won re-election in 2014, staving off Democrat Charlie Crist in another Republican wave year.
In both his elections, Scott ran as a critic of former President Barack Obama and benefited from midterm backlash against the Democratic president. If he runs in 2018, it will be as a friend of the president in an election where historical midterm trends boost Democrats.
Florida’s governor and senior senator didn’t see each other in Washington last week, but traded barbs in a possible preview of 2018.
Scott, who spoke generally in support of the GOP approach to health care without specifically endorsing the Senate bill, said talking to Nelson would be a waste of time because “he’s not engaged in the health care debate…What have you seen him come out and do other than oppose doing anything about this? I’m going to focus on the people that are actually doing something with regard to the health care debate.”
Nelson said if Scott “really cared about the people of Florida, he’d be doing the exact opposite of what he’s doing now.”