State Politics

Republicans kick off Florida campaign with fiery rhetoric aimed at ‘risky’ opponents

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, left, shakes hands with gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis as he introduces him to supporters at a Republican rally Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, in Orlando. Scott is trying to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, left, shakes hands with gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis as he introduces him to supporters at a Republican rally Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, in Orlando. Scott is trying to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. AP

The leaders of the Republican Party ticket in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, blasted their Democratic rivals Thursday as radical socialists who can’t be trusted with the reins of government.

At a barbecue restaurant in the heart of the Interstate-4 corridor in Orlando, Scott and DeSantis appeared together publicly for the first time since they won their respective nominations for U.S. Senate and governor in the Aug. 28 primary.

Their strategy was a repeat from past Republican political campaigns in Florida, portraying Democrats as liberal advocates of more taxes and spending who can’t be trusted.

Republicans have won the past five elections for governor over the last 20 years. The last Democrat who won was Lawton Chiles in 1994.

“This election offers voters the starkest choice possible,” Scott said, reading from a prepared text — a rarity for him. “The Democratic ticket of Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum offers a very clear, very liberal, very radical and very risky direction for our state and country.”

Scott’s speech highlighted the Republican strategy of linking the moderate Nelson to the more liberal Gillum at every opportunity. In his speech, Scott compared Gillum’s agenda — Medicare for All, increasing the corporate tax rate from 5.5 percent to 7.75 percent and raising the minimum wage from $8.25 to $15 an hour — to socialism, which is essentially the state takeover of businesses, in Cuba and Venezuela.

The Republican event came a week after a Democratic pep rally in the same city, at a union hall where Democrats sought to team Nelson’s pragmatism and Gillum’s idealism.

The battle between Scott and Nelson is by far the most expensive Senate race in the country this cycle and is one of the most competitive. A new Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed the two men deadlocked, 49 percent to 49 percent, with 2 percent undecided.

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Despite Scott’s massive personal wealth — he spent nearly $100 million of his money in his two campaigns for governor — Scott cast himself as a poor child of working-class parents who grew up in public housing, and said that Nelson “grew up wealthy.”

Scott’s net worth grew by $83 million last year to $232 million, according to a financial statement filed with the state. Nelson’s net worth is between $1.3 million and $6 million, according to a statement filed with the Senate.

Also appearing as members of the Republican ticket were Tampa lawyer and former Hillsborough County circuit judge Ashley Moody, the nominee for state attorney general; Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis; and Rep. Matt Caldwell of Lehigh Acres, nominee for agriculture commissioner.

DeSantis, who has highlighted national issues over state issues throughout his campaign, criticized Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, for opposing the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and for calling for the elimination of the federal immigration agency.

DeSantis, whose principal political asset is an endorsement from President Donald Trump, defended the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and he accused Gillum of favoring a policy that protects child molesters.

“If somebody’s in our state illegally and they molest a kid, and they get convicted and they serve a sentence,” DeSantis said, “when it comes time for them to be released when they’ve served their sentence, you do two things: Either they’re given to immigration authorities and repatriated back to their home country, which is what I think should happen, or if you’re Andrew Gillum and you will not cooperate, you have to release those people back into our society. Well, guess what? A convicted child molester will re-offend. So you are putting our communities in danger.”

The event also marked the first public appearance of Rep. Jeanette Nuñez of Miami, who was chosen by DeSantis late Wednesday to be the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

Nuñez stood on stage during the 45-minute event but did not address the crowd of about 100 people, including a number of operatives working for Republican candidates, at Ace Cafe in Orlando.

Hecklers interrupted Scott’s speech a few times, and Republicans quickly tried to drown them out with chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

The program also featured a speech by Adam Putnam, the outgoing agriculture commissioner who was soundly defeated by DeSantis in the primary for governor last week. Putnam made a call for unity to defeat the Democrats in November.

Nuñez, with DeSantis alongside, faced reporters briefly afterward and downplayed her past criticism of Trump as a “con man” and as a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 2016 presidential campaign, when she supported her friend and longtime ally in Miami politics, Sen. Marco Rubio.

“Elections are elections. It is what it is,” she said. “It’s no secret that I was a strong Marco Rubio supporter, but that election is done.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

Florida Governor Rick Scott visits Interstate Beverage Corp in Hialeah as part of his campaign rollout for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, April 10, 2018.

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