Rick Scott is preparing to defend his Florida governorship with the most expensive reelection campaign in state history, drawing up plans for a battleship-sized political operation aimed at overcoming the Republican's deep personal unpopularity.
The anticipated price tag, according to sources familiar with Scott's plans: $100 million.
Scott is no stranger to heavy spending; the former hospital care executive put some $73 million of his own money into an insurgent 2010 primary campaign and a narrow general election win. His TV ads saturated the Florida airwaves for months.
But Scott's 2014 campaign -- possibly pitting him against party-switching former GOP Gov. Charlie Crist as the Democratic candidate -- won't just be a jacked-up version of the 2010 version, knowledgeable Republicans said. In addition to darkening the sky with paid media, Scott's team is looking at the possibility of creating a state-specific data and analytics division, either within the campaign or at the Republican Party of Florida.
The idea would be to replicate President Barack Obama's success in targeting and turning out Sunshine State voters -- though sources cautioned that no final decisions have been made about the project. The RPOF has already done some deeper voter-file work, and GOP Chairman Lenny Curry spoke out after the 2012 election about the need to catch up with Democratic data-gathering and turnout operations.
Scott is also looking to raise more money from sources other than his own checkbook and hopes to bank tens of millions of dollars with the state party this year. Unlike 2010, when Scott faced a costly primary, this money is all budgeted for the general election.
The incumbent's "internal budget has it as a $100 million race on [Scott's] if Charlie Crist is the nominee," said a source familiar with Scott's plans.
Several Scott strategists declined to comment on the governor's plans. But Scott pollster and strategist Tony Fabrizio didn't deny that the campaigns calculations call for a $100 million effort against Crist.
That anticipated spending could make the 2014 governor's race one of the costliest gubernatorial races in U.S. history. The most expensive nonpresidential election to date is the 2010 California governor's race, in which former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spent more than $143 million of her own money only to lose to Democrat Jerry Brown.
Crist, who currently leads in Democratic primary polling, has not said definitively that he will run for governor again in 2014. At least a handful of other Democrats are considering the race, including former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, state Sen. Nan Rich and former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the 2010 Democratic nominee.
Of all the races looming in the 2014 midterms, Scott's may be the most important prize for both parties. Republicans have held a lock on Florida's statewide offices since 2010 and maintained a comfortable grip on the Legislature even as Obama won the state in November.
Now, Scott is the most endangered incumbent governor leading a presidential mega-swing state and Democrats are determined to take him down.
Polls show Scott is in a dangerous predicament: a Quinnipiac University poll in December pegged his approval rating at just 36 percent. Last month, the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling put that number slightly lower, at 33 percent. PPP found Scott trailing Crist by 14 percentage points in a general election.
That leaves little room for error for even the most sophisticated Scott operation heading into the midterms.
Curry, the party chairman, argued Scott has an opening to shore up his position now that the presidential election is over. Florida voters may have more bandwidth to consider an argument from Scott focused on the improving economy and specific policy achievements during his tenure.
"If you talk about what's happened under his term thus far and you talk about his policies, Floridians react positively to that," Curry said. "He was so viciously attacked in 2010 and then when Florida began to turn around during his term, the presidential campaigns and all the negativity surrounding both sides just drowned out our message in Florida. Now we have an opportunity to tell our story."
Scott's critics in both parties are skeptical. After all, it's not as if this is the first time Scott has tried to regain political traction in Florida. But his personal favorability numbers have been grim ever since he took office; when the RPOF ran TV ads last year touting Scott's accomplishments, it made little difference in public polling.
And over the past few weeks, Scott has charted a jagged course on the state budget issues that will define much of 2013. After pushing deep spending cuts during his first two years in office, he now proposes to increase teacher salaries and give bonuses to other public employees -- a move that has perplexed both embittered Democratic constituencies and small-government Republicans.
Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who was a senior adviser to Obama's Florida campaigns, said expensive campaign tactics alone wouldn't be enough to win another term for Scott.
"You sort of reach a point where it doesn't matter how much money you're spending if voters have already decided. The reality for Scott is, there's a distinct possibility that voters have already decided," said Schale, who cautioned it's too soon to say whether the governor's wounds will be fatal.
But Schale urged political observers to recall that Scott originally won by a slim 62,000 votes "in what was arguably the most Republican year since the 1800s." Republicans are unlikely to have a similar wind at their backs going into the midterms, meaning that even if Scott holds onto all the voters he won in his first election, it might not be enough to prevail again.
"Even if you assume that it's not going to be a good year for Democrats in 2014, it's not going to be as bad as 2010. It's not going to be as bad as 1994," Schale said. "I have no doubt that the electorate in 2014, had it existed in 2010, would have elected Alex Sink. You're going to have an electorate that is worse for Rick Scott."
The biggest reason not to count Scott out, Republicans say, is the uncertainty surrounding his Democratic opposition. Crist may be polling strongly now, but Republicans believe the ex-governor is vulnerable to attacks on his glaring political flip-flops and his connection to a campaign finance scandal within the state GOP.
Former RPOF Chairman Jim Greer faces a trial this month for allegedly embezzling money from the party. Crist appointed Greer to the chairmanship; he has already been drawn into lurid pre-trial stories about the financial and social culture of the RPOF during Greer's tenure.
While other Democrats lack that baggage, they also lack Crist's name recognition and likely his fundraising potential, too.
Republican lobbyist Brian Ballard - a top Crist supporter during Crist's days as a Republican, who now backs Scott -- said the current governor will have to make sure voters in 2014 are more focused on his record than on his personality.
"He's never been a good politician, and I think that's a badge of honor he should wear proudly. But he's been a doggone good governor," Ballard said of Scott. "He's got some challenging poll numbers, but [there's] an improving economy in Florida."
Predicted Ballard: "He will be a strong Republican nominee that will be exceptionally well-funded in his reelection efforts."
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