Florida Gov. Rick Scott may be the twice-elected chief executive of a megastate who has chaired a super PAC and counts President Donald Trump among his friends, but he cast himself as a political outsider Monday as he launched a Republican campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for nearly 18 years.
At the formal beginning of what will be one of the nation’s most expensive and closely watched Senate races, Scott didn’t utter three-term incumbent Nelson’s name.
But Scott railed against “career politicians” and said Washington needs fresh ideas as he stood with his wife, Ann Scott, at a construction business amid pallets of truss anchors, 40-pound tubs of cement resurfacing mix and newly printed “Let’s Get To Work” signs.
Scott’s 13-minute remarks didn’t delve into specific policies except to call for congressional term limits, which would require amending the U.S. Constitution.
“Washington is a disaster. Washington is dysfunctional. There’s a lot of tired thinking up there,” said Scott.
“We shouldn’t be sending the same type of people to Washington. We should say we’re going to make change…We can change Washington. We must change Washington. We will change Washington together. Let’s get Washington to work,” Scott said.
Although he’s the governor of America’s third-largest state, Scott said he has retained his outsider status.
“I didn’t fit into Tallahassee because I didn’t play the insider games. I never intended to fit into Tallahassee and guess what: I’m not going to fit into Washington, either. We need to shake up Washington. We can’t keep sending career politicians and politicians to Washington and think we’re going to get a different result,” Scott said.
Scott’s formal announcement ended two years of speculation about his plans beyond 2018, when he faces term limits as governor. A Scott campaign for Senate has been such a foregone conclusion over the past year that no other plausible Republican candidates have even hinted at entering the race.
Scott’s Monday announcement came on the eighth anniversary of his filing for governor in 2010. Scott, a multimillionaire health care executive who had never run for office, was seen as having no chance in the Republican primary that year against then-Attorney General Bill McCollum.
But Scott spent more than $70 million of his own money to win the primary and general election. Four years later, Scott narrowly won re-election over his predecessor as governor, Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist.
The Scott-Nelson Senate race will be unlike any contest either candidate has seen.
Nelson has been elected to the Senate three times — but he has never beaten a candidate with the name recognition, fundraising prowess and personal wealth of Scott.
Scott has won the Florida governorship two times — but he ran during the national Republican wave years of 2010 and 2014 and eked out victories with less than 49 percent of the vote each time.
Historical trends and recent polls point toward a difficult environment for GOP candidates this year with Republican Trump in the White House.
Scott was an early cheerleader for Trump and has a close relationship with the president, dining with him in Washington and at Trump International Golf Club in unincorporated West Palm Beach. Trump publicly urged Scott to run for Senate during a visit to Miami last June and again in September when he visited Southwest Florida to survey damage from Hurricane Irma.
“I hope this man right here, Rick Scott, runs for the Senate,” Trump said in September after crediting Scott with doing an “incredible” job after the hurricane.
Scott has received high marks in polls for his handling of Hurricane Irma, though Democrats have tried to link him to the heat-related deaths of 14 seniors at a Broward County nursing home that had its air conditioning knocked out by the hurricane.
A storm that spared Florida but devastated Puerto Rico — Hurricane Maria — got much of the attention at Scott’s announcement on Monday. The storm has sent many Puerto Ricans to Florida, where they could play a significant role in the 2018 elections.
Puerto Rico Lt. Gov. Luis Rivera introduced Scott on Monday as a “good friend of Puerto Rico” and commended him for his trips to the island after Maria.
“The most stressful moments we faced on the island, Gov. Scott was there with us consistently,” Rivera said.
Nelson issued a brief statement Monday in response to Scott’s announcement.
“I’ve always run every race like there’s no tomorrow – regardless of my opponent. While it’s clear that Rick Scott will say or do anything to get elected, I’ve always believed that if you just do the right thing, the politics will take care of itself,” Nelson said.
While Scott and Nelson said little about each other Monday, the Republican and Democratic parties and allied groups have been preparing for the race for months and launched a variety of attack websites. The Democratic-leaning Senate Majority PAC, for example, released an anti-Scott digital ad on Sunday while the Republican-leaning Senate Leadership Fund has an anti-Nelson website deriding the incumbent.
During a stop in West Palm Beach last week to promote gun control, Nelson said Scott “has not been in touch with the state of Florida – not only on massacres and guns but things like climate change, sea level rise, funding for schools and go right on down the list, including drilling offshore. So, folks are going to have a real, real choice.”
Scott has emphasized jobs and the economy throughout his campaigns and his two terms as governor.
Florida has added nearly 1.5 million private sector jobs since Scott took office in January 2011 and seen its unemployment rate shrink from 10.7 percent to 3.9 percent during that time.
Nelson says Scott doesn’t deserve credit for the state’s improved economy.
“The state of Florida came back from the deep recession just like the entire country did … So goes the national economy, so went Florida’s,” Nelson said.
But Florida has outperformed the nation and most individual states in job growth.
Private sector employment has grown by about 20 percent in Florida since Scott took office, compared to about 16 percent for the rest of the U.S. over the same period, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. Florida’s 10.7 percent unemployment rate in January 2011 was worse than the nation’s 9.1 percent jobless rate at the time; in February, the state’s 3.9 percent unemployment rate was better than the nation’s 4.1 percent rate.
At ODC Construction, which hosted Scott on Monday, President Tony Hartsgrove said the business has grown from about 250 employees to nearly 500 employees in the last four years.
“He’s a big fan of jobs, job creation,” Hartsgrove said of Scott. “We’re a big fan of pro-business government.”