TALLAHASSEE -- As Gov. Rick Scott stood before a group of Realtors in Clearwater on Tuesday, he used the spike in federal flood insurance rates to do what has become his weekly mantra: blame President Barack Obama.
Nevermind that it was congressional inaction that allowed a key provision in the federal flood insurance act to take effect — despite misgivings about the unintended consequences by most of its supporters. Scott accused the president of threatening to cripple Florida’s real estate recovery by failing to stop rates from rising.
In seeking reelection in 2014, Florida’s Republican governor, whose favorable rating hovers below 40 percent in most polls, has found a favorite, equally vulnerable target in the nation’s Democratic president.
With Obama only slightly more popular than Florida’s governor, Scott loses nothing by bashing the president. And he’s got plenty to gain by revving up his Republican base while winning over independents unhappy with the president.
Scott will likely square off next year against Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor who is now a Democrat. Part of his strategy will be the same one employed by Republican Marco Rubio when he defeated Crist, then an independent, in the 2010 U.S. Senate race. He must link Crist to Obama every chance he gets.
In the last month, Scott has blamed Obama for federal budget cuts to Florida’s National Guard troops. He’s complained about the president’s failures in launching the Affordable Care Act. He’s accused the administration of failing to repair the aging dike that threatens Lake Okeechobee. And he has chastised the president for failing to lead as the government headed toward a shutdown.
“The buck stops with the President. We need leadership now,” Scott said in a Tweet to his 40,000 followers on Wednesday.
It’s an attack campaign without an opponent as Obama serves as a convenient straw-man to Crist and Democrat Nan Rich, a former state senator also running for governor. Crist is expected to announce later this month that he will return to the arena to challenge Scott for his old job.
Scott’s Obama-bashing strategy can work in Florida, pollsters say, because the longer Washington remains mired in partisan dysfunction, the more the president’s numbers decline — especially among independent voters who often dictate races in Florida.
A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted two weeks ago found that 49 percent of the public disapproves of the job Obama is doing and 43 percent approves, the lowest measure since he was reelected in 2012. Independents are increasingly skeptical about the president’s healthcare law with only one in three supporting it.
“Scott is doing exactly what you would expect of him,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “He’s the captain of the red team in the state of Florida; it doesn’t hurt him to be criticizing the head of the blue team nationally.”
Democratic pollster Dave Beattie agrees.
“He won the election in 2010 running against Obama and linking Alex Sink to Obama. It worked,” said Beattie, who worked for Scott’s 2010 gubernatorial opponent, Alex Sink. “The weakness is it makes him more partisan” — something moderates and independents dislike.
Base building is especially important in Florida. Although Obama narrowly won the state last year, Republicans turned out a larger percentage of their voters: 76 percent compared to 70 percent of registered Democrats.
In 2010, Republicans had a seven-point advantage in turnout over Democrats, a factor Sink supporters say cost her the election. Republicans have traditionally had an advantage in gubernatorial races as a disproportionate number of Democratic voters have stayed home, while Republicans, though fewer in number, are more reliable about going to the polls.
But 2014 is different from 2010. Scott has a record to defend and, after winning narrowly in a purple state as an outsider candidate, the governor has never been viewed favorably by a majority of Floridians in any independent poll.
“In 2010, Rick Scott won in large part because he rode the national Republican wave,’’ said Quinnipiac’s Brown. “In 2014, Scott may have to create his own wave.”
In hypothetical Scott-Crist matchups, independent voters have consistently supported Crist over Scott.
A poll released last week by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling found that Crist leads Scott by a 12-point margin and, among independent voters, he leads by 24 points.
While the poll showed that voters are somewhat lukewarm about Crist — with 43 percent viewing him favorably and 42 percent unfavorably — it also underscored what nearly every poll has found: Voters like Crist more than they like Scott. A Quinnipiac poll in June produced similar results with Crist leading Scott, 47-37 percent.
“Polls at this stage are irrelevant,’’ said Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “Charlie Crist is not the nominee and voters are not paying attention to his record.”
Curry said that once Crist kicks his campaign into gear, Democrats “will have no comeback to what Rick Scott has done in terms of fiscal responsibility and education and jobs but the Republican Party of Florida will make certain that Floridians know that Charlie Crist is unfit to govern.”
Among their talking points, he said, will be the jobs lost while Crist was governor, his decision to leave office rather than seek a second term and his “decision to run for the U.S. Senate and, when he couldn’t handle it, he switched parties.”
Beattie, the Democratic pollster, counters that Scott’s focus on Obama’s record is an attempt to deflect criticism from his own record, his failure to find a lieutenant governor and what Beattie says are “questions about ethics.”
“In 2010, Democrats were beaten down, defensive about healthcare and voters had a lot of anger that a lot of Republicans rode to victory,” Beattie said. “This time, voters believe Rick Scott hasn’t looked out for them. Things haven’t gotten better and they don’t trust him.”
And, in what may be a prelude to the Democrat’s talking points for 2014, Beattie suggests that Scott’s record shows that “he had a problem in business with people around him and now he has a problem in government with people around him.”
Either way, many expect the 2014 race to be one of Florida’s most negative campaigns as both sides attempt to discourage the other candidates’ base from turning out and winning over independent voters who do show.
Scott, a multimillionaire former healthcare executive, spent more than $73 million of his own money to win election to public office for the first time in 2010. Supporters have said they expect him and the Republican Party of Florida to spend $100 million on his reelection. Scott’s political committee has raised $17 million thus far.
“Negative campaigns work, particularly with independent voters,” Beattie said. “They expect people to be bad, so they make a choice between the least worst candidate.”
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.