This is a column you may read in November 2014.
As Will Weatherford enters Election Day as the Republican nominee for governor, political observers are still stunned by the Florida House speaker’s meteoric rise. Yet all agree on exactly when the trajectory of Weatherford’s political career began to track exponentially upward: Feb. 20, 2013. It was on that day when outgoing Gov. Rick Scott announced he would support a potentially massive expansion of the Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act.
It was also on that fateful February day when Weatherford was first asked by a reporter whether he would challenge Scott in a Republican primary. The speaker laughed off the reporter’s question. Soon after, however, Weatherford’s supporters began to plan seriously for a gubernatorial campaign that would eventually see Weatherford handily defeat Scott in one of the costliest gubernatorial primaries in the country.
Weatherford was actually the first prominent Republican to question Scott’s decision to go along with Obamacare. In fact, Weatherford’s disagreement with Scott began 10 minutes before the governor officially declared his intention to expand Medicaid: “Governor Scott has made his decision and I certainly respect his thoughts,” said Weatherford at the time. “However, the Florida Legislature will make the ultimate decision. I am personally skeptical that this inflexible law will improve the quality of healthcare in our state and ensure our long-term financial stability.”
The Legislature did, in fact, make the ultimate decision, grudgingly going along with Scott’s decision, but only after an extended legislative session that ground to a halt as a truculent House and Senate at first would not sign off on the Medicaid expansion. The Legislature held hostage several of Scott’s political priorities, including his budget proposal to give a $2,500 pay increase to teachers. In turn, Scott made good use of his veto pen, nixing several legislative initiatives.
By the end of the session, Scott found himself trapped between defending the benefits of Obamacare, and thereby angering his tea party base, and fighting an internecine scrum against most of Florida’s Republican elected officials. Scott’s poll numbers continued to suffer from what voters perceived as his inability to work with other political leaders.
It was during the last days of the 2013 legislative session, when idle legislators waited to overturn Scott’s threatened veto of their budget, that several of Weatherford’s colleagues, along with two of Weatherford’s trusted deputies — Kathy Mears and Kris Money — first approached the speaker about challenging Scott in a primary. These legislators, first among them state Reps. Richard Corcoran and Rob Schenck, suggested Weatherford rattle his saber as a possible negotiating tool in dealing with an increasingly isolated Scott.
As word spread of Weatherford’s possible insurrection, three letters changed the entire framework: J-E-B, as in Jeb Bush. The former governor asked to meet privately with Weatherford before the speaker made his decision or spoke with Scott. Weatherford agreed to fly to Coral Gables to meet with Bush. There he informed Weatherford that if he did indeed decide to run, Bush would free up his political allies to publicly support him. And, if Scott did not eventually drop out of the race, Bush said he would publicly endorse Weatherford.
Bush also said that he thought U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s early support of Weatherford was a possibility, although the prospective 2016 presidential candidate did not want to complicate his own ambitions by weighing in on a Republican primary. Still, Rubio, like Bush, was motivated as much by a desire to help Weatherford as he was to keep former Gov. Charlie Crist from returning to the governor’s mansion. In the end, Rubio lent his early support to Weatherford, providing a critical boost to his campaign.
Weatherford returned to Tallahassee, imbued with a genuine desire to run for governor. However, one potential obstacle remained in Weatherford’s way of directly challenging Scott: Adam Putnam. The popular commissioner of agriculture had been contemplating his own primary challenge of Scott. Putnam was increasingly worried that if he did not challenge Scott in the primary, he would be locked out of running for another eight years.
Support for Putnam among Republicans ran as deep, if not more so, than it did for Weatherford. Putnam was a statewide elected official, with experience in Congress and the Legislature. It was only natural that the next step in his political career be a run for governor. In the end, however, Putnam decided against running, those closest to him say, mostly out of a sense of loyalty to his party. Putnam concluded Scott, despite his flaws, had earned the right to seek a second term without a challenge from within his own party.
With Putnam out of the way, Weatherford’s path was clear. Talk of his running against Scott swirled throughout the Capitol during the final days of the 2013 session. A telling sign of the tense political situation occurred when Scott did not appear at the ceremonial dropping of the handkerchiefs by the two chambers’ sergeant-at-arms signifying the end of the legislative session.
Weatherford announced his candidacy a week after the session concluded. Conservative bloggers and pundits, like RedState’s Erick Erickson and National Review’s Betsy Woodruff, rushed to cheer on “the next Rubio.”
Weatherford’s father-in-law, former House Speaker Allan Bense, served as de facto chairman of the campaign, while dozens of political hands from Bush’s and Rubio’s previous runs flocked to Weatherford’s bustling campaign headquarters in Wesley Chapel.
Republican donors, now free to donate $10,000 checks instead of the usual $500 (thanks to legislation Weatherford shepherded), infused the speaker with enough contributions to offset Scott’s personal fortune.
By the summer of 2013, polling indicated that Weatherford was within striking distance. Scott’s stock with Republican primary voters had been in free fall since his decision to accept Obamacare. It was then that Bush and Rubio made their move, issuing a joint endorsement of Weatherford’s candidacy. Scott would never recover, despite spending nearly $60 million of his own money on his reelection.
Peter Schorsch, a political consultant based in St. Petersburg, publishes SaintPetersBlog.com.