Four years ago, on a rainy fall day in Florida, more than 500 activists gathered at a rally organized by the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party to hear a speech by a relatively unknown activist named Rick Scott. He’d flown out to the rally on his own dime and paid for his own room at the local Hampton Inn. He really wanted to be there, and the rally’s organizers knew it. To the tea-party activists, he was one of them. The Affordable Care Act was about to pass the House, and grassroots conservatives were mad enough to stand out in the rain to hear an anti-Obamacare activist explain what they could do to stop it. And Scott delivered. His vision for private health care was so compelling that, a year later, these same activists, and many like them, helped to elect him governor. Scott was the golden boy, the fighter. He was their hope.
Then things got complicated.
In February, Scott moved to accept federal funding for a Medicaid expansion. “This was not a tertiary issue,” says Henry Kelley, who helped organize that 2009 rally. Blocking the expansion was states’ last chance to resist the health-care law. And Scott didn’t take it. “This is what he campaigned on,” continues Kelley, explaining his bitter disappointment. “This is what he rose to fame on: opposing Obamacare.”
Everett Wilkinson, who helped start the South Florida Tea Party and campaigned for Scott, is not happy with the governor. Scott is a “Benedict Arnold,” he says. “I have a lot of members who say they won’t vote for him again. They say: What’s the difference if I vote for him or if I vote for Charlie Crist?”
Scott has felt the pain in the polls, though his poll numbers were low even before the Medicaid kerfuffle. In a Quinnipiac poll from March, only 32 percent of voters said he deserves a second term. And a Public Policy Polling survey from March gave him only a 33 percent approval rating. “Scott barely has the approval of his own party,” PPP wrote in its analysis. “Republicans approve of his job performance by a slim 46/42 margin.”
A Florida political insider says he suspects that Scott supported the Medicaid expansion because he assumed conservatives would support him regardless, due to his conservative positions on most issues, from taxes to guns. “I think it was a huge miscalculation on his part, because I think he really has hurt himself with his base,” the insider says.
Scott is not without supporters. A number of state senators, including Senate President Don Gaetz, are unflinching in their support of the governor. And Lenny Curry, the chairman of the Florida GOP, is also an outspoken defender. He praises Scott for paying off $2 billion of the state’s debt and overseeing the creation of 300,000 jobs in the state. “If you look at the totality of his record, he’s done exactly what he campaigned on,” Curry contends.
Keith Appell, a consultant and former senior adviser to Scott’s 2010 campaign, adds that the governor remains a popular figure in conservative circles, in spite of reports of tea-party unrest. “Rick Scott’s record of conservatism is second to none,” he says, citing Scott’s spending cuts, tax cuts, and elimination of teacher tenure. Scott’s pro-life record and Second Amendment support, he argues, will keep his conservative supporters behind him.
Scott proposed and signed off on a smorgasbord of tax cuts in the state’s 2011 budget. In his latest budget, he proposed the elimination of the tax on manufacturers. Those moves and others have drawn him props from some fiscal conservatives.
The first bill Scott signed as governor lets principals consider teachers’ merit as part of the evaluation process for pay raises. And he signed legislation requiring public employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay to their pensions. As a result, some teachers saw their take-home pay go down. The state’s largest teachers’ union sued to stop the pension reform, but the state supreme court upheld the change. The governor is currently lobbying for a $2,500 annual raise for all teachers, a push that doesn’t seem to be gaining serious traction in the Republican legislature.
Scott’s supporters argue that his fiscal track record will keep his base loyal. Others aren’t so sure. So how did the former tea-party darling become such a divisive figure?
Let’s backtrack. When Rick Scott became the governor of Florida, he was a star. It wasn’t an easy victory — in a state with a population of about 19 million, he won by around 60,000 votes, or less than half a percentage point. But he seemed committed to his tea-party guns, as it were, and invited state tea-party leaders to help him craft his first budget, which he unveiled at a rally. He was their guy.
Soon enough, however, Scott’s tea-party supporters began to question his gubernatorial hires. They point to Steve MacNamara, a former Scott chief of staff who resigned amid concerns about how he handled contracts, as an example of how Scott has made some mistakes with his executive staff and hired party insiders. Scott’s lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, abruptly resigned last month after a criminal investigation into her involvement with an Internet sweepstakes company.
Due to his troubles, conservative state legislators who have never clicked with Scott now see an opportunity to tarnish him. All in all, Scott’s relationship with Republicans is gradually unraveling. Throughout his first year in office, he largely stayed out of the way of the Republican legislature: no surprise vetoes, no grand initiatives, little to no bombast. One insider says that given the way Scott rode the Tea Party to power, the comparatively low-key atmosphere of his first year in office came as a bit of a surprise.
But that changed. Scott’s background was as a CEO, and he eventually started to run the governorship the way he’d have run a business. In contrast to Jeb Bush, who as governor was personable and warm, Scott is described as having the classic CEO style of leadership: cold, distant, and oriented to the bottom line, at least in the eyes of his critics, especially legislators. He vetoed several bills that Republicans had supported, such as one allotting funds for rape-crisis centers and a prison-reform bill that had taken years to pass.
His announcement on the Medicaid expansion came across to several high-placed state Republicans as a slight. The legislature had a select committee putting together a list of recommendations for Medicaid expansion, which is why, prior to Scott’s announcement, Florida’s congressional delegation postponed making any official pronouncements on the subject.
There’s also the question of Scott’s dance with the teachers’ unions. Insiders doubt that Scott’s push for a pay raise for teachers will help him siphon off much support from the reliably Democratic teachers’ unions, but his staff seems to think it could help him come across as more compassionate.
State GOP leaders aren’t as eager to placate the unions. The House just passed a parent-trigger law, which the Senate will probably vote on within two weeks. It would allow parents with kids in chronically troubled schools to vote on how to restructure the neighborhood school. The Senate canned a parent-trigger law during its last session, but the body is more conservative now than it was last year, and the bill’s proponents are optimistic about its prospects. If it passes, all eyes will turn to Scott.
And by “all eyes,” I mean all. The bill is anathema to teachers’ unions, and school reformers see it as an important step in loosening the unions’ grip on state politics. So Scott has an unpleasant dilemma. He can sign the bill, bunker down for the inevitable shellacking from the left, and potentially emerge with burnished conservative bona fides. Alternately, in hopes of snagging a few votes away from Charlie Crist, he can break with his base for the second time in as many months and try to endear himself to a group that’s fiercely loyal to the Left.
No doubt, from education to Medicaid, Scott faces challenges. His allies say he’s simply navigating a difficult period and trying his best to boost the party while still preserving his reelection chances in often-purple Florida. They also believe that his economic record will eventually trump any political disagreements with conservatives and tea-party types.
A pressing question, however, is whether Scott has anything to worry about besides the impending Crist challenge. If a competitive primary challenger arises, Scott could be in trouble — or not. It’s hard to predict. And if he writes his campaign fund a check for $100 million, which isn’t outside the realm of possibility, then potential challengers might give him a pass. “All of the primary talk is nonsense, since Scott hasn’t burned that many bridges and he has more money than anybody else in state politics,” says a Florida campaign consultant. “If you’re a rising Republican, it’s doesn’t seem like a ripe opportunity.”
Nevertheless, Adam Putnam, the agriculture commissioner, is rumored to be considering a run. He’s just focusing on his work, he insists. When asked if he has ruled out a challenge, he reiterates that he’s focused on being agriculture commissioner. Other conservatives say that Jeff Atwater, the state’s chief financial officer, is being encouraged to run, too. And a handful of state legislators hope former congressman Allen West will challenge Scott in a primary, as his national fundraising base and name recognition would give him an advantage the other potential contenders lack.
He hasn’t closed the door on the idea. “It’s kind of making people question, ‘Really, where is your backbone?’” West said last month, criticizing Scott’s green light for the Medicaid expansion “Me, I would not have gone for that Medicaid expansion. And according to the Supreme Court decision, it was not something you were mandated to do.”
One thing is for sure: Scott has a lot of work to do. “There’s some fence-mending that needs to take place — I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” says Slade O’Brien, the Florida director of Americans for Prosperity, who works with numerous tea-party leaders across the state. “But I would also say that the alternative right now [Charlie Crist as governor] is one that sends shivers up the spines of Republicans in the state. And that may play to the governor’s advantage.”
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.