The increasingly grim outlook facing Republicans in the midterms has raised new questions about the political future of Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), a top potential GOP Senate recruit who still hasn’t declared to challenge Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonNASA, SpaceX and the private-public partnership that caused the flight of the Crew Dragon Lobbying world The most expensive congressional races of the last decade MORE (D-Fla.).
Scott has long been expected to mount a campaign against Nelson, a race that would be a marquee Senate match-up in a key battleground state. The two-term governor is close to President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE, who has publicly encouraged him to run in a state that Trump carried by a little more than a point in the 2016 presidential race.
Scott hasn’t indicated when he’ll make a decision about the race. But after another top prospect — Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerRepublicans prepare to punt on next COVID-19 relief bill GOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police Trump tweets spark fresh headache for Republicans MORE (R-N.D.), who had been expected to challenge Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama Pro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA MORE (D-N.D.) — opted against a run, the spotlight has shifted to Scott.
Despite concerns that a string of recent Democratic victories could convince Scott to sit out the race, Florida Republicans don’t appear worried and say that Scott “has the luxury of time” given that Scott likely won’t face a primary and that he brings both his personal wealth and established political operation to the general election.
“He’s got the ability to lay the hammer down very quickly and be in the fight very quickly,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist in Florida. “At this point, if you’re him, you want to wait as long as you can [because] Donald Trump is really unpopular in Florida with people outside the Republican base.”
Some political observers speculate that Scott will wait until after the state’s legislative session concludes on March 9. There are currently no Republicans who have entered the race, since Scott’s likely announcement has frozen the GOP field. Scott has until May 4 to file, with the primary on Aug. 28.
“If Rick Scott doesn’t get in the race for whatever reason … you will get a sudden burst of people jumping into that, but I don’t think anyone’s made any serious plans in that regard,” Wilson said.
Scott, who has carried other hyper-competitive races statewide in the past, would be a formidable opponent.
His personal wealth would also be a key factor in what’s expected to be one of the most costly Senate races in 2018. In 2016, Florida’s Senate race was the most expensive one of the cycle with nearly $60 million spent, according to OpenSecrets.
Nelson, who has served in the Senate since 2001, is one of 10 Democratic incumbents seeking reelection in a state that Trump carried in 2016.
Still, unseating Nelson won’t be an easy feat. Nelson has been involved in Florida politics for more than four decades, and has stockpiled $8 million in his campaign account for his upcoming reelection battle.
And Republicans are expected to face strong headwinds in both the Senate and House heading into November. Democrats have held a consistent lead in generic ballot polling, while an unexpected Democratic special election victory in deep-red rural Wisconsin last week served as just the latest suggestion that a Democratic wave could be coming in November.
While Scott sits on the sidelines, Democrats haven’t wasted any time taking shots at him and his record as governor.
Scott boosted his national profile when Hurricane Irma hit last September, and his hurricane response could boost a Senate bid. But Senate Democrats have questioned Scott’s response to deaths at a nursing home that lost power during the hurricane.
Still, political observers aren’t convinced that the issue will hurt him in a Senate campaign. There have been calls to investigate Scott, but the state attorney declined to do so.
“The nursing home issue is one that Democrats feel they can make headway with,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “I think we don’t know yet, but we do know that the polling gave [Scott] good marks for how he handled Hurricane Irma.”
The Trump administration’s offshore drilling proposal to allow drilling rights lease sales between 2019 and 2024 could also be a factor in the race.
The proposal, an unpopular one in Florida in part because of the state’s large tourism industry, put Scott in a bind between his own constituents and the Trump administration. Both Scott and Nelson, a longtime opponent of offshore drilling, opposed the drilling expansion.
Scott took it up with Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Trump officials may pursue offshore drilling after election, report says | Energy regulators to delay projects pending appeals | EPA union calls for ‘moratorium’ on reopening plans Trump administration could pursue drilling near Florida coast post-election: report Trump to make it easier for Alaska hunters to kill wolf pups and bear cubs: report MORE in a meeting in Tallahassee earlier this month, which prompted Zinke to remove Florida from the list. But Zinke’s decision is not yet a “formal action,” and it could open the Trump administration up to legal challenges from other states that don’t want offshore drilling.
Scott critics are accusing him of flip-flopping on the issue. In 2010, he appeared open to offshore drilling and called it an “option,” according to the Miami Herald. And Senate Democrats’ campaign arm labeled Scott’s meeting with Zinke as a “publicity stunt” that threatened Florida’s beaches.
“It’s unfortunate that he and his friend President Trump would manufacture a crisis to try and help his political ambitions, but in doing so they’ve shone a bright spotlight on Scott’s long record of backing oil drilling off Florida’s shores and beaches,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Wilson said the issue could ultimately hurt Scott because offshore drilling is highly unpopular in Florida, giving Democrats an opportunity to tie the governor closely to the White House.
“They handed Bill Nelson the television ad to run against Rick Scott,” Wilson said. “That’s something that — the longer Rick Scott can get [the offshore drilling proposal] in the rearview mirror, I think the better off he is.”
Scott’s close relationship to Trump will also be tough to navigate in the perennial swing state.
Trump has made it clear that he wants Scott to run, most recently offering public encouragement last September when the president spoke in Florida following Hurricane Irma.
But the Republican governor will need to walk a fine line on how closely he associates himself with the president. Trump has said he wants to be active in 2018 campaigns, but it remains to be seen whether he will come down to Florida to boost Scott and vulnerable House Republicans.
There are already signs that Scott is seeking to distance himself from Trump. After news broke about Trump calling Haiti, El Salvador and African nations “shithole countries,” Scott released a statement that he does “not think this way, nor do I agree with this kind of sentiment.” Florida has a sizable number of Haitian-born residents who are registered to vote.
“What will hurt Rick Scott is the endless beat down of ads showing him next to Donald Trump,” Wilson, an outspoken GOP critic of Trump, said. “People who hate Donald Trump will crawl over broken glass to vote against people who like Donald Trump.”
But MacManus noted that Scott’s longtime focus on tax cuts and job creation has some overlap with the president’s message, which could be potentially leveraged as a positive link to Trump.
“Scott’s whole mantra from the [first] time he ever ran is ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’” MacManus said. “He’s banking on the fact that people give him good marks for job creation and that’s the one thing we do know is that people at least give Trump higher marks for the economy than anything else.”