Marc Caputo: Despite Gov. Rick Scott’s low poll number, Democrats say he’ll be tough to beat

Rick Scott’s poll numbers look dismal. His finances don’t.

"One number should worry you: $70 million. That’s how much Rick Scott spent in 2010," Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, Miami-Dade’s new Democratic chairwoman, told Democrats this weekend.

To be clear, she was referring to Scott’s personal money. And it was actually closer to $75.1 million.

Include the Republican Party, and Scott probably spent just under $100 million. He was worth at least $218 million at the time, but reports he lost net worth after becoming governor. His wife has millions more.

Scott is prepared to spend as much or more in 2014.

The money race is on. And Democrats are losing it. But they know it.

That’s a big reason they picked Allison Tant on Saturday as state Democratic chairwoman. When she nominated Tant, Taddeo-Goldstein specifically mentioned Scott’s spending.

Tant knows campaign money. She raised it for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and President Obama. She was recruited by Nelson and her friend, Congresswoman and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

In much of the nation, many liberals feel Republicans are in retreat after Obama’s win. Florida Democratic leaders and insiders showed this weekend that they don’t believe it.

A few Democrats and many Republicans see Obama’s victory as more of a coin-toss result instead of a mandate in Florida. The president won the state by just .9 percentage points. Obama’s 2008 margin: 2.8 points.

After that first Obama’s victory, magazines like Time displayed a May 18, 2009, cover of an elephant with the headline: “Endangered Species.”

Democrats proceeded to lose every statewide elected seat based in Tallahassee in 2010. They were swamped nationwide, too. Republicans, though, no longer hold the supermajority they won two years ago in the Florida Legislature thanks to the last election.

“It’s foolish to think the next election will be easy,” said Nan Rich, a former state Senate Democratic leader from Weston running for governor.

“Rick Scott has a lot of money,” she said. “And it’s not just him. It’s the Republican Party.”

Republicans still control the Legislature. They still control the governor’s mansion. And that means all the big special interests doing business in the state Capitol — anything from telecom companies to agricultural interests to the real-estate industry to insurers — contribute outsized sums to the GOP.

In the fundraising quarter that ended New Year’s Eve, the state Republican Party raised nearly $2.2 million — more than five times what the state Democratic Party pulled in.

Scott has $4.7 million in one campaign account. And none of that includes the millions available to Republican legislative leaders.

Rich has raised $81,000 and spent $21,000 since April.

If the Democrats control the governor’s office, however, a good 25 percent of the money now flowing to the Republican Party could come to them. That can help the Democrats fund more legislative races and better candidates to slowly mount a comeback after losing the Legislature in the 1990s.

Money doesn’t buy an election. But it puts a major down payment on a victory.

In a state as big as Florida, cash is a must to pay for TV commercials across 10 media markets. There’s a direct correlation between ad spending and poll numbers.

Look at Scott. A political newcomer and unknown in 2010, he spent big and soon became well-known enough to beat longtime Republican figure and state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the GOP primary. Scott went on to beat state CFO Alex Sink by just 1.2 percentage points despite the big Republican year.

Sink might run again.

If she does, she can’t repeat her strategy of 2010, where she dwelled excessively on Scott’s business background. His former hospital company was socked with a record Medicare fraud fine in 1997.

But Scott stayed focused on talking about jobs. He articulated a more positive message, just like Obama did. It helped carry the day for each in two very different Florida elections.

Since Scott won election, Florida’s unemployment rate is falling and the economy is improving.

But his poll numbers really haven’t kept track.

Scott’s lowest ratings followed his first politically disastrous legislative session when 29 percent of Floridians approved of the way he handled his job; 57 percent disapproved, according to a May 2011 Quinnipiac University survey.

Scott made up ground a year later. His approval: 41 percent. But 46 percent disapproved.

That means, in polling parlance, that Scott was still “under water” with an approval index of -5.

That -5 was Scott’s all-time high in Quinnipiac’s surveys.

Last month, Quinnipiac showed Scott’s approval index was -11. Obama’s approval index was +12 in Florida.

That’s a big improvement since late October when Obama was at +1 heading into the election. At that time, Scott was at -6.

The numbers indicate Scott won’t get much traction by repeating his 2010 Obama-bashing.

Scott’s political team thought he’d be in much better shape by now. They had hoped he’d be more popular than Obama. They ran early TV ads and the governor has reversed course on education cuts (he wants more teacher pay now) and early voting (he wants more hours).

There’s time for Scott to turn things around by 2014. He has two more legislative sessions.

But the most recent public survey, taken two weeks ago by Democrat-aligned Public Policy Polling, showed Scott’s approval index at -24.

Scott’s biggest threat right now, former governor and Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, beat him 53-39 percent in a theoretical matchup. Sink was up 47-40 percent.

And Rich, an unknown who has never run statewide, had an inside-the-error margin was up 41-37 percent in the poll.

The poll didn’t survey former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who looks as if he’s seriously planning to run.

Of all the major potential Democratic candidates, Rich was the only one to attend Saturday’s Florida Democratic Party meeting where Tant was chosen to lead.

“This is the grassroots,” Rich said.

But the grassroots need to be fed. The fertilizer is money. And Scott is all green right now.