Six months ago, in the wake of the wipe-out midterm elections, moderate Florida Sen. Bill Nelson privately vented that President Barack Obama, weighed down by his health reform effort and muddled messaging, was “toxic” for Democrats back home.
Yet Obama’s approval rating has surged from 42 percent to 51 percent in the last month, and Nelson is now openly embracing the president, pronouncing himself dutifully “fired up” at an Obama-hosted Miami fundraiser this spring.
What’s changed? The killing of Osama bin Laden, slow but demonstrable improvements to the foreclosure-ravaged economy, a cooling of tea party passions and the toxic nature of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s Medicare overhaul in a state with one of the largest populations over the age of 55 in the nation — all are factors in Obama’s turnaround.
But Obama’s biggest asset in a critical swing state he won by a mere 2.8-percentage-point margin in 2008 might be Rick Scott, the wildly unpopular Republican governor Democrats are casting as Lex Luthor to Obama’s Clark Kent.
Democrats say Scott, a stern, angular, unvarnished former health insurance executive, is an easily caricatured embodiment of conservative excess and tea party overreach. And he will likely be Obama’s prime target in Florida, no matter who the Republican presidential nominee is, as well as the best hope of countering the threat posed by the possible selection of popular freshman Sen. Marco Rubio as the GOP nominee’s vice presidential running mate.
“Obviously, it gets a lot tougher for us if they put someone like Rubio on the ticket,” said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “But Rick Scott is the standard-bearer for Republicans in Florida. … He wants to be President Obama’s foil in Florida, and we’re more than happy to let him be just that.”
Happy isn’t an emotion beleaguered Florida Democrats have experienced much lately, but Scott is bucking them up. A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed his approval rating at 29 percent and his disapproval rating at 57 percent — by far the lowest approval rating of any governor in the country.
“The double whammy for any Republican running in Florida is Rick Scott and Medicare,” said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the south Florida congresswoman who was chosen for her new job, in part, to be Obama’s most visible surrogate in the nation’s biggest swing state.
“Rick Scott is at 29 percent — 29 percent!” she added.
Broward County, Fla., political blogger Brandon Thorp summed it up this way: “If presidential and gubernatorial elections were held in Florida today, no declared Republican presidential candidate could unseat Obama, while Rick Scott would have a hard time beating [Cuban President] Raul Castro.”
Obama’s 2012 campaign team — which has already begun mobilizing a massive Florida operation expected to match or even exceed his $49 million effort in 2008 — plans to leverage Scott for all he’s worth to overcome stiff economic and political headwinds in the state.
The governor has given Obama plenty to work with five short months after Scott eked out a 49 percent to 48 percent win over Democrat Alex Sink. He’s cut 10 percent of the state’s education budget, which could result in the sacking of thousands of teachers; the Republican supermajority in the state Legislature flatly rejected his attempt to ram through an Arizona-type immigration law and his rejection of federal high-speed rail funding has sparked criticism from many in his own party.
Almost single-handedly, he’s managed to energize a Democratic base demoralized by last year’s midterms. The party’s surprising victories in the Tampa and Jacksonville mayor’s races this spring were fueled by anti-Scott fervor, Democratic strategists say.
Scott has picked fights with almost everybody: reporters, liberals, Republicans, but especially with the Obama administration, rejecting $2.4 billion for a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando and $1 billion to implement the health reform law — all while positioning himself at the vanguard of the state-level anti-Obama movement.
“We need leadership,” he said in response to Obama’s State of the Union Speech in January. “We need elected officials who will take on special interests, make tough choices and focus on the right priorities. We need fiscal conservatives who recognize the solution to every problem is not a new government program. We need to take less money out of the pockets of Americans, and we need to get government out of the way of those who create jobs.”
Obama, a politician in search of any foil he can find at a time when the GOP presidential field remains scattered, is fast warming to the fight. During recent interviews with Florida news outlets, he went out of his way to target Scott, especially over the rail funding plan, which enjoys broad bipartisan support.
“Frankly, I think the governor was wrong on this,” he told a Miami TV station in March. “And that’s not just my opinion. That’s the opinion of folks in Tampa and Orlando, including a lot of Republicans up there.”
Bring it on, said Scott spokesman Brian Burgess.
“Gov. Scott is focused on turning the economy around in Florida. … It’s going to be interesting to try to see how the president tries to take credit for that,” he told POLITICO. “We’re already starting to see the unemployment rate drop when nationally, it went up last month. The governor is getting it done, and it will be interesting to see how the president tries to take credit.”
Still, the collapse of Scott’s popularity has many Republicans in the state deeply worried. And if recent history is any guide, Florida governors do, indeed, matter in national political races: Rubio’s defeat of Gov. Charlie Crist last year defined the electoral limits of moderates in GOP primaries nationwide — and Jeb Bush’s support for his brother when he was governor was considered a major part of George W. Bush’s contested Florida victory in 2000.
Like many Florida Republicans, Al Cardenas, a former state GOP chairman, is less than thrilled to have Scott as the face of the state party heading into 2012.
“He’s a half-painted canvas. … The most unknown governor we’ve ever had,” Cardenas said. “I’m hoping he’ll catch on and be a good governor.”
Yet Scott is no panacea for everthing that ails Democrats in Florida.
Obama’s health reform law remains deeply unpopular, particularly in the Florida Panhandle. His deep cuts to NASA — including the elimination of a $40 million grant to laid-off space shuttle workers — have dented his popularity in central Florida. And his recent comments about restoring Israel’s pre-1967 borders, including negotiated expansions, has made the state’s influential and well-to-do Jewish population deeply uneasy.
“He did a really good job of explaining his policy” during a follow-up speech a few days later at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group, said Wasserman Schultz, for whom support for Israel is a core position.
“But we’ve got to make sure we don’t lose the messaging on this,” she added. Obama’s position “is not a 30-second sound bite, so it takes a while to explain. So we have to go out and communicate what his position is and push back against some of the lies out there.”
Obama’s team isn’t leaving much to chance. Campaign manager Jim Messina has made several trips to Florida to rally donors and gird them for the fight ahead. And 17 months before the first ballot is cast, Obama’s Florida team is already in place with Ashley Walker, a veteran of former Sen. Bob Graham’s presidential campaign, at the helm as state director.
John Gilbert, who earned high marks for Hispanic outreach in Nevada for Obama in 2008, has been tapped as the campaign’s Florida field director with Organizing for America’s Ashley Bauman is running the communications shop, according to Democratic officials.
The nascent campaign, sources say, is initially focusing on a few fundamentals: updating databases, strengthening campus organizations, reaching out to urban black voters and reassuring Jewish supporters in south Florida.
But their biggest long-term task is wooing Hispanics, especially if Rubio enters the race. At the moment, Democrats can take consolation in two facts: Rubio has said he’s not interested in being anybody’s No. 2 and Hispanic support for Obama in the state in 2008 — about 57 percent — was nearly identical to Rubio’s performance among Latinos in 2010.
“Marco’s a threat, no doubt,” said veteran Florida pollster Dave Beattie. “But Obama does about as well among Hispanics [as] Rubio does.”
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.