‘Seven-point-five percent.” When you meet Florida governor Rick Scott, you hear that phrase over and over again. It’s the Sunshine State’s unemployment rate — and why he thinks he’ll win reelection. “You better believe it,” he says, as we chat at a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. “Our state has never been like Texas; we haven’t done enough to promote our success. So I’m teaching everyone in our state to become braggarts.”
Count Scott — a soft-spoken, bald millionaire — as braggart-in-chief. He is unpopular with conservatives, including Republican state legislators, for expanding Florida’s Medicaid program, and his approval rating has slipped to 36 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. But the state’s improving economy could be his saving grace.
Next year, Scott will probably face a tough race, especially since Democrats are on the upswing in Florida. (Barack Obama won the state twice.) Charlie Crist, a Democrat and former Republican governor, is eyeing a run, as is popular Democratic senator Bill Nelson. National Democrats have already pegged Scott as one of their top targets.
To compete, Scott, a technocratic former venture capitalist, is raising a lot of cash. According to the Miami Herald, he’s raking in an average of $50,000 per day, and he raised nearly $5 million in the first three months of this year. His fortune is ready to be deployed, too, though Florida insiders say Scott hasn’t decided whether he’ll once again pour in millions. (In his first campaign, he spent $75 million of his own money.)
He’s also recasting himself. The tea-party fervor that accompanied his 2010 gubernatorial victory has been replaced by a nearly robotic focus on jobs. Gone are the attacks on the Obama administration, and in their place are nonpartisan platitudes and a bevy of statistics that Scott seems to rattle off during every speech and interview. Three hundred thousand new private-sector jobs; an unemployment rate that has dropped more than three percentage points; a $2 billion reduction in state debt — these are the things Scott talks about incessantly.
Scott pushes back against the idea that Medicaid expansion could be his undoing. “It’s not a law I supported, but it’s the logical thing to do, since it’s the law of the land,” he explains. “We don’t have a choice now with all of those taxes. What we have a choice on is: Are we going to take care of the uninsured people in our state? Well, yes, we will, and if the federal government wants to cover more of our people, we ought to do it.”
Scott predicts that his fellow Republicans will ultimately come to understand his decision to accept federal coverage, even if they disagree. He notes that his anti-Obamacare bona fides were firmly established three years ago. “Remember, I was one of the first people to run ads against the president’s health-care law,” he says. “But we’re paying for it, so while we do that, we should be able to accept the coverage.”
Republican members of Florida’s state house, especially speaker Will Weatherford, appear to disagree. This week, they’re locked in a fight with Scott over whether to approve the measure. Senate Republicans are in Scott’s camp, but Weatherford and his conservative allies refuse, for the time being, to pass Scott’s proposal. Whether Scott can get them to cut a deal will be one of his big tests in this legislative session.
It’s not only Medicaid, however, that is giving Scott heartburn. His battles with Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature have, at times, crippled him in Tallahassee; the Associated Press on Monday questioned whether he could pass much of his $74 billion budget. Scott has been able to pass a bill to increase teacher salaries, but even that effort alienated Republicans who have long had issues with the teachers’ unions. His tax cut for manufacturers is another piece of legislation that remains up in the air.
“I like teachers — don’t you?” Scott asks me, leaning forward and rapping his finger on the coffee table. “We have measurements and merit pay, and teachers support me on that, so it’s going to work.” Scott says his pay raise for teachers is the “right thing” to do, and he touts the elimination of teacher tenure as another component of his education agenda.
On the issue of a “parent trigger” bill, Scott is vague. The legislature might pass a bill that gives parents the right to vote on how to restructure troubled schools, but he has not made a final decision on it. “We’ll see what they do,” he says. “I believe in choice, and I believe that parents ought to have the right to choose which kind of school [their kids] go to . . . I want to push as many decisions as possible down to the local level.” He believes that the state can still get “results,” even if this legislation does not pass.
Scott sees his battles with Florida’s Republican lawmakers, such as the fracas over his Medicaid decision, as a sideshow that most voters will ignore. He smiles tightly when I list his differences with state house leaders. “I’m going to run on my track record,” he says. “I’m going to keep talking about how I work every day to help you get a job and help your child get a great education. I’m going to stay focused on what I’m going to do, just as I did when I was in business. That’s all I’m going to do.”
And so it goes for the rest of our conversation. As lawyers and tourists order lattes and iced drinks around us, Scott never gets off message. He even provides me with a few pamphlets that lay out, almost to the word, what he’s told me about his economic record and Florida’s boom. It’s not exactly a charismatic sale, but it’s pragmatic and efficient. He’s banking on those numbers, and that non-ideological appeal, as 2014 approaches.
“When people go to the polls, all they’re going to ask is: Am I better off with my job prospects and my home’s value than I was four years ago?” he says. “Those are their concerns. Believe me, I’ve met thousands of people, and that’s what they tell me.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.