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.