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.