State Politics

As Gov. Rick Scott lays low, his poll numbers go higher

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, left, speaks as Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, right, listens during a news conference at Miami International Airport, Wednesday, to highlight record tourism numbers for the state.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, left, speaks as Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, right, listens during a news conference at Miami International Airport, Wednesday, to highlight record tourism numbers for the state. AP

Avoiding the political spotlight in the Capitol is doing wonders for Gov. Rick Scott’s poll numbers.

For the first time since shortly after he took office in 2011, a new statewide poll shows that Scott’s job approval is more good than bad, by the barest of margins: a single point.

But that’s real progress for the least popular governor in the modern history of Florida, especially when he has been feuding with Senate Republicans, spending tax dollars to settle public records lawsuits and generally staying away from the Capitol, most recently with trips to Colorado and France this month.

The poll numbers also could embolden Scott to seek a U.S. Senate seat in 2018 as his second term as governor is ending.

The survey by Quinnipiac University taken Aug. 7-18 shows that 45 percent of Florida voters approve of Scott’s handling of his job and 44 percent disapprove, with the rest undecided.

The only other time Scott’s numbers were not upside down was a few weeks after he took office in 2011, when voters gave him a vote of confidence by 35 percent to 22 percent, with the remainder undecided.

Scott’s poll numbers soon began sinking and never recovered until now.

In a previous poll in June, his numbers were more typical, with 39 percent approving of his job performance and 49 percent opposed.

“It’s an uptick of a little bit. I hope it’s a trend, but who knows?” asked Brian Hughes, a Republican media strategist and former Scott adviser.

Hughes said Floridians are finally giving Scott credit for his steady focus on creating jobs, reducing state debt and lowering taxes.

Hughes said Scott has had “ebbs and flows” with the Legislature. But he said he believes that Scott’s June vetoes of $461 million in local spending projects, which blind-sided and antagonized lawmakers, will ultimately be viewed by taxpayers as the right decision.

“For Scott, it’s striking that he has just gotten to even,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac’s Polling Institute. “It may be the start of something good for him but it also might be an aberration.”

Brown said Scott’s improved poll numbers may further portend a U.S. Senate bid for the seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson since 2000.

Scott can’t run for governor again, but his Let’s Get to Work committee continues to take in big-dollar donations, including $400,000 from the Florida Chamber of Commerce PAC in the past week alone.

Scott keeps a half-dozen consultants and fund-raisers on the committee payroll and rents a year-round campaign office in Tallahassee a few blocks from the Governor’s Mansion.

The campaign donations bankrolled Scott’s statewide TV ad buy last spring to nudge the Legislature to embrace his agenda of tax cuts and more school money.

Supporters expect more of the same when the next session begins in January.

“He’s keeping his political apparatus ready,” said Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard, a Scott fund-raiser. “What he has said to me is that he needs money to communicate his message in the upcoming session. He doesn’t appear to be stockpiling it.”

A message left on Scott’s personal cell phone Tuesday was not returned.

In Quinnipiac’s telephone survey sample of about 1,000 voters with a 3 percent margin of error, Scott’s improved job approval number could be a reflection of about 20 voters voicing a more positive view of him.

Democrats were decidedly unimpressed.

“Breaking even in a popularity poll does not make a great governor,” said Ron Bilbao, a Democratic activist who uses social media to criticize Scott. “This governor’s lackluster leadership shines through in that what we have is a disastrous Legislature. He has nowhere to go but up.”

Scott has made it a point to stay out of much of the legislative fray in Tallahassee this spring and summer.

When the regular session collapsed in April and the House abruptly left town, Scott stayed on the sidelines. When a budget stalemate produced another breakdown, he issued warnings of a government shutdown and sided with the House, which made it impossible for him to negotiate with the Senate.

When a special session on congressional redistricting fell apart last Friday, he was in his Naples hometown and did not step into the void.

A leading GOP lawmaker, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, urged Scott to use his constitutional authority to compel the House and Senate back to work.

“I, for one, would welcome his leadership,” Bradley said. But Scott was on his way to the Rocky Mountains.

“Republicans want to like Rick Scott, but if you look back, he’s been missing in action,” said Paula Dockery, a columnist and former Republican state senator whose own bid for governor was derailed when Scott appeared on the scene in 2010 with his unlimited checkbook. “On redistricting, he disappeared and headed for France. The less he’s in the limelight, the better he’s liked.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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