TAMPA BAY, Fla. – Let's take three politicians: an unpopular incumbent governor known for his Croesus-like piles of cash, a former governor known for his shocking-white hair and elastic political convictions, and a septuagenarian U.S. Senator famed for his uncanny ability to sniff out television cameras. Now, drop them on a subtropical peninsula, teeming with alligators, mosquitos and 29 electoral votes. What would you get?
If you answered the Florida 2014 gubernatorial race you would be right. You would also be right if you answered: A big headache for the Republican Party.
Here's the situation in my home state: Republican businessman Rick Scott, who self-financed his $70-plus million campaign for governor in 2010, is now more than halfway through his first term in office (his first term in any elected office). And since taking office he has never gotten his approval rating in any credible statewide poll to rise above 45 percent. In fact, most of the time his approval numbers hover in the high 30s, about 10 points under his disapproval ratings.
Scott is different from other Republican politicians who are unpopular among the general electorate, but who have a base of support with a key faction of their own party. He doesn't seem to have anybody who strongly supports him. Even Tea Party Republicans, who rallied behind him two-and-a-half years ago because they thought he was an anti-politician who was going to run the state like a business, are re-thinking their support.
A state committeewoman and Tea Party leader last week called on the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) to "step back" from the governor until next year's primary is over. Her biggest, but not her only, complaint was that Scott had endorsed an expansion of the state-run Medicaid program. Scott's endorsement was also rebuked by every other member of Florida's independently elected cabinet who are Republicans, and so far the Republican-controlled legislature hasn't moved forward with the idea.
Florida is the largest swing state in the nation, and despite having a GOP-dominated state government, it went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. The loss of the governor's mansion ahead of the 2016 open presidential contest would mean big trouble for the next Republican nominee.
For many elected officials, consistently lousy poll numbers, state committee members in open rebellion, and a constantly shifting array of senior staff (he is on his third chief of staff) would be reasons enough to consult with their retirement advisers and to think about making room for a successor. But Scott has that fat wallet that he waves like a cudgel to scare off potential primary challengers.
Who that wallet doesn't scare away are two established politicians whose names are familiar – and popular – among voters. Unfortunately for Republicans, they are Democrats.
Former Republican Governor Charlie Crist is the man with the white hair and dark tan. He is also the Magellan of party politics. In a matter of less than two years, he circumnavigated his way from "Reagan Republican," to independent to a now "Obama Democrat," announcing his latest party affiliation at the White House last summer.
Although the very idea of Crist in their party gives many Democrats the urge to drive sharp pencils into their eyes, he still appeals to a lot of Floridians who see his smiling face on billboards across the state, pitching a personal injury law firm with the slogan "For the people." Perhaps this explains why the latest Quinnipiac survey has Crist beating Scott 50 to 37.
Now comes a new twist, propelled apparently by sharp-pencil-wielding Democrats who are lobbying U.S. Bill Nelson to join the fray. Nelson may be 70 years old, but he is fresh off a reelection victory, and is an absolutely relentless campaigner and notorious media hog. He would be a formidable candidate for governor.
Maybe it's because Scott never held elected office before, but his confidence feels like disrespect for the hard work it takes to earn real public support, the kind of support that's actually public loyalty. You can't buy that kind of support; you can only earn it over time. There are Republicans who have earned that kind of loyalty. Former Gov. Jeb Bush is a good example.
Scott's people are making polls-be-damned noises about planning a $100 million reelection campaign. Typically, a well-financed candidate is a source of reassurance to his party, but that is when the money serves as a barometer of public support. In this case, the money certainly is not a barometer, and it may not be nearly enough.