Politics & Policy

GOP Candidates Pander to Governor Scott; Jeb and Rubio Jockey for First at Florida Summit

Jeb Bush at the Economic Growth Summit. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Tuesday’s presidential cattle call in Orlando, Fla.,. drew seven Republican White House hopefuls seeking to sell their economic visions to prospective donors. But though he’s not running for president, Florida governor Rick Scott was the clear crowd favorite.

Perhaps that’s not surprising, since it was Governor Scott’s “Let’s Get to Work” 527 group that organized the “economic growth summit” in the first place. In the first major Florida gathering of GOP candidates, the governor behind the Sunshine State’s spectacular economic turnaround assembled hundreds of his closest political advisers, appointees, and allies at a ritzy Disney World hotel to help handicap next year’s presidential primaries.

For less-established candidates, it was a chance to kiss the governor’s ring and potentially win his endorsement, along with the support of Florida’s well-heeled donors and political class. For in-house favorites, it was a chance to solidify their base and remind Floridians why they are the natural choice. And for all candidates, it illustrated the pitfalls presented by a crowded Republican field uniformly pushing the same low-tax, low-regulation message.

The candidates who attended — nominally including Senator Marco Rubio, stuck in Washington due to the PATRIOT Act debate and forced to deliver a brief video presentation instead — were organized into two groups.

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The underdogs included former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Texas governor Rick Perry, and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. This was effectively their Florida debut, and they used it to lavish praise on Governor Scott’s economic record. Under his four-and-a-half-year tenure, Florida gained 827,000 jobs while slashing taxes and regulations.

“I give a lot of credit to Governor Rick Scott for the extraordinary leadership he has brought to the state of Florida,” Huckabee said. “And I say that for two reasons: No. 1 because it’s true, and No. 2 because this is his conference, and anything I can do to suck up to him and his donors, by gosh, I’m gonna do.”

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Recalling his recent experience as a Texas governor trying to poach jobs from other states, Rick Perry said that “nobody gave me more blues that Rick Scott. I’m serious; I mean this guy got up every day — still does — thinking about how he makes this state so competitive.”

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal jokingly declared his intention to “pander” to his host. “If I were elected president of the United States,” he said, “I would turn around the American economy the same way Governor Rick Scott has turned around the economy for the state of Florida.”

Chris Christie Rick Scott Economic Growth Summit

The established candidates were more measured. New Jersey governor Chris Christie didn’t effusively praise Scott during his interview with the Florida governor. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker — who recently said he might not campaign in Florida before the March 2016 Republican primary — briefly thanked his host. And Rubio and former Florida governor Jeb Bush hardly mentioned Scott at all.

Tallahassee lobbyist Chris Finkbeiner saw wisdom behind the decision of some candidates to angle for Scott’s endorsement, a decision the governor says he will “most likely” make before the Florida primary. “He’s a guy who’s won statewide twice in two very tough elections,” he tells National Review. “Particularly if this race continues to take a tone on the economy and how to create jobs, I would think his opinion matters.”

Scott remains cagey about a possible endorsement. But he maintains a tight friendship with Perry and is close to both Christie and Jindal. Despite their in-state popularity, Florida’s Rubio and Bush are more removed from the governor. 

Scott remains cagey about a possible endorsement. But he maintains a tight friendship with Perry and is close to both Christie and Jindal.

Tom Feeney, a former Florida congressman and Jeb Bush’s running mate during his first, unsuccessful shot at Florida’s governorship in 1994, told NR that Scott’s endorsement would not mean certain victory for whoever earns it. “It would be important,” he says, “but I don’t know that it would be the disqualifier for anybody that didn’t get the endorsement.” 

Regardless of who gets the governor’s nod, Feeney says Bush and Rubio remain “heavy favorites” in Florida. Though Feeney says he is “personally a big Jeb supporter,” most other political operatives present Tuesday were guarded over their preference. Denying a major ideological contrast between Bush and Rubio, they nevertheless saw differences between the two Florida politicians.

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“I think the biggest difference between Governor Bush and [former] Speaker Rubio is experience,” says Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. He tells NR that Bush’s résumé in education and tort reform give him an edge Rubio might lack.

But he says Rubio is “a fantastic speaker who can take the American dream and really crystallize it into a focused agenda,” saying that he also gained experience pushing tax and regulatory reform during his tenure as speaker of the Florida state legislature.

“I think both of them would be phenomenal presidents of the United States,” says Wilson, “especially compared to what we have now.”

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But even Bush and Rubio’s strongest supporters reserve the highest praise for Scott. “I think Governor Scott today showed he’s almost the gold standard,” says Wilson, touting his tenure in Florida as an economic model for all GOP presidential candidates to follow. And Feeney says the summit proves Scott has “really evolved and matured as a communicator, in addition to just being a great executive.”

At the end of the summit, after every candidate had pushed a variation of low-tax, low-regulation policies and state-by-state economic innovation, one attendee nervously asked Jeb Bush how Republican voters could differentiate between the White House hopefuls.

#related#“It’s early,” says Feeney, explaining that getting into the weeds too soon on economic policy could undermine a campaign. “Laying out a general vision, at this point, is probably more important.”

“You have maybe 10 candidates who are essentially saying, ‘We need to grow the private sector, shrink the public sector, we need to put power back to the states,’” says Wilson. “I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch eight or ten people try to draw a distinction between themselves.”

But others worried the similarities could cause a nasty fight among the presidential candidates, damaging the party’s prospects in the general election. “In Seminole County — and, unfortunately, what’s happening in our legislature in Tallahassee — there’s not a viable opposing viewpoint,” says Seminole County school-board member Amy Lockhart, describing how the dominance of Republican legislators in many parts of the state has proven destructive.

“We tend to become cannibalistic,” she says. “And we start eating our own.”

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