Politics & Policy

Florida Man Considers Next Adventure

Governor Rick Scott speaks at the Republican National Committee spring meeting, April 2016. (Reuters photo: Joe Skipper)
What does Governor Rick Scott want to do next?

‘I don’t talk to him,” Florida governor Rick Scott says, referring to his state’s three-term Democratic senator, Bill Nelson, an incumbent up for reelection in 2018.

Quite a few Republicans, including President Trump, are hoping that Scott, a term-limited governor, will run against Nelson next year.

Scott says he hasn’t decided on a Senate bid, and isn’t in any particular rush to make a decision. But a few weeks ago at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Atlanta, Scott addressed the attendees and offered a surprisingly explicit argument for replacing Nelson.

“I believe it’s crucial that we increase the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate,” Scott told the NRA crowd, after praising Trump’s decision to nominate Neil Gorsuch. “Look at the votes on this Supreme Court nominee, and you can see there are a number of senators who did not represent their states. These senators need to be retired. Unfortunately, one of my state’s senators, Bill Nelson, has veered far to the left.”

Asked about why he called out Nelson before a politically active crowd, Scott insists he wasn’t hinting at a 2018 Senate bid.

“You look at Neil Gorsuch, how could you vote against the guy?” Scott said during a recent visit to Washington. “[Nelson’s] the senator from Florida, and that’s why it was relevant to talk about him.”

It’s clear Scott feels no particular warmth toward Nelson, as he explains why he doesn’t talk to his state’s senior senator. “What you learn in this job, I’ll give you a story. My hometown is in Collier County. I know who to call in Collier County to get things done.”

The governor is too careful and even-keeled a politician to really come out and say it explicitly; his version of a smackdown is a pause so pregnant it might as well be having triplets. But the implication is clear: Scott doesn’t talk to Senator Nelson because he doesn’t think his state’s Democratic senator is a guy who can get things done. With a little twist of the knife, Scott says, “I talk to Marco [Rubio] quite a bit.”

Right there, the twin prongs of a GOP message against Nelson in 2018 become visible. For a purple state that’s trending red, the incumbent has become just another Democrat marching in lockstep. And for a three-term senator from an important state, Nelson is an easily overlooked nonentity in the nation’s big debates. It’s bad enough that Nelson’s a liberal, but he’s a liberal afterthought.

The independently wealthy Scott could partially self-finance in what is one of the most expensive states in the country, instantly making that Senate race competitive. Democrats might get an ominous sense of déjà vu: The governor, a former hospital executive, wasn’t supposed to win the 2010 GOP primary, or the 2010 general election, or his reelection bid in 2014. Democrats spent fortunes trying to beat him, and Scott spent even larger fortunes on television advertising, winning by 1 percent in both general elections.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Scott’s NewRepublican.org is a renewed emphasis on deregulation, with an open acknowledgement that this is the sort of issue that Republicans have a hard time explaining and touting.

For now, Scott’s newest project is chairing a new federal Super PAC, “New Republican,” aiming to “rebrand” the GOP to face new challenges.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of NewRepublican.org’s push is a renewed emphasis on deregulation, with an open acknowledgement that this is the sort of issue that Republicans have a hard time explaining and touting.

“It’s not sexy; no one really wins elections on it,” the NewRepublican.org mission statement acknowledges. “But the simple truth is this — excessive regulations are the Number One thing that keeps our private-sector economy from working. In Florida we have cut taxes many times, and that has been important, but deregulation is what has really made our economy take off. We will aggressively back the president’s push to take the leg irons off of this economy and reinvent government.”

Scott joins an experienced cast of operatives from past GOP campaigns at the PAC: Alex Castellanos, pollster, ad man, and CNN contributor, and two veteran staffers from former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, Taylor Teepell and Scott’s former chief of staff and 2014 campaign manager, Melissa Stone.

Some curious questions shadow any effort to “rebrand” the GOP right after the party won the presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. If things are going so well for Republicans, why would they need to change? And just how new is this vision? At times, the NewRepublican messaging sounds like the wonky details-and-innovation approach that largely flopped in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, from the likes of Jindal, Scott Walker, and Rick Perry.

But as good as 2016 was for Republicans, there’s still room for improvement. NewRepublican envisions a GOP that touts its policies as being open, against a closed status quo — instead of the Right against the Left. The first videos tout school choice as “Opening Up Education” and deregulation as “Opening Up Our Economy.”

The aim is to reach out to Hispanics, young voters, and other demographics that remain reflexively wary about the Republican message. Scott won 38 percent of voters age 24 and under in 2014; Trump won 27 percent of that group in Florida. (Interestingly, Trump did almost as well as Scott among Latinos — 35 percent in 2016 to Scott’s 38 percent in 2014.)

And Scott feels he has a success story and a blueprint to share with the rest of the GOP. He boasts of cutting taxes by $5.6 billion, the highest funding of state education ever, the highest public-high-school graduation rates in 13 years, 1.26 million private-sector jobs created since his election, and the lowest crime rate in 45 years. (It helps when your state is a retirement capital and the Baby Boomers are entering their golden years, property values keep rising — which means increased property-tax revenues — and your snowbird residents pay property taxes but only live there part of the year.)

Perhaps NewRepublican’s role will be less “rebranding” the GOP than finding and spotlighting those common policy grounds between traditional conservatism and modern Trumpism. The president may not talk about deregulation in much detail, but it represents one of his most significant legislative accomplishments so far. Trump has no real history as a school-choice advocate, but his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is an indisputable leader in that cause. Hopes for major tax reform and reduction under Trump will remain high until either it passes or Trump leaves office.

One key question for Scott in the coming year will be whether this particular vision of the GOP — with one foot in Trumpism and the other foot in recent-vintage gubernatorial wonkiness — can be best spread by an outgoing governor or as a high-profile Senate candidate.

The governor may not talk to Bill Nelson much. But plenty of Republicans are hoping that next year, he’ll be debating him on a stage.

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