Florida Politics

Rick Scott rides Trump’s coattails onto center stage — but at what cost?


Gov. Rick Scott was conspicuous by his absence at the last Republican convention in Tampa four years ago, but he had a good excuse: A tropical storm was bearing down on Florida.

Scott will play a prominent role in next week’s convention in Cleveland but finds himself at the center of a political storm that poses risks to his final two years in office and a possible run for U.S. Senate in 2018.

For better or worse, the governor of America’s biggest presidential battleground is also his state’s leading supporter of Donald Trump, the most divisive presidential candidate in decades.

Scott is all-in with the bombastic Trump, even as other leading Republicans boycott the convention or keep a distance from a candidate who has torn his party apart while offending one demographic group after another.

Scott will take the stage Thursday to deliver a prime-time convention speech for Trump, and then goes to work in what polls suggest is an uphill climb to deliver Florida to a candidate reviled by Hispanics in particular, the fastest-growing part of Florida’s electorate.

Their friendship is strong. There’s always a risk. You can’t even predict your own political future, never mind another candidate’s, but I think Donald Trump will do well in Florida.

Susan Wiles, who ran Rick Scott’s first campaign for governor

Scott’s task is made tougher by his own lack of popularity at home, as well as his strategy of aggressively building up his political operation at the expense of a cash-poor Republican Party of Florida.

But if Trump wins, Scott will have an immediate pipeline to the White House after years of repeated clashes with President Barack Obama.

“Being able to have a friendly voice on the other end of the line can only be an upside for Florida,” said Susie Wiles, who ran Scott’s first campaign for governor in 2010.

If Trump loses, Scott will still be an outcast in Washington. Trump could also drag down Scott in his final two years as governor, possible hurting his bid for U.S. Senate in 2018.

“The gamble he’s making is that Trump-ism will continue without Trump,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson, the unofficial town crier on social media for the Never Trump movement. “Trump’s rhetoric — building a wall — may work in the Panhandle, but it’s not universally applicable. It may make it harder to win elections down the line if you end up with rhetoric and themes and policies that are disqualifying in a statewide election.”

Scott is seen by the political class as a likely candidate for the Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson in 2018, when his term as governor expires.

Working outside the party apparatus, he continues to raise millions through his Let’s Get to Work political committee.

Scott surely sees a reflection of himself in Trump, the hard-charging businessman who entered politics an outcast but crushed the Republican establishment that openly mocked him.

“Donald Trump is a businessman like me,” Scott wrote on Facebook in June. “He understands what it takes to create jobs and what it will take to get our economy on track.”

I think Trump is an actual danger to the country. I personally cannot understand how anyone can support him.

J.M. (Mac) Stipanovich, a Republican strategist and lobbyist in Tallahassee

Some Florida Republicans are appalled by Scott’s support of Trump.

“I think Trump is an actual danger to the country. I personally cannot understand how anyone can support him,” said J.M. (Mac) Stipanovich, a Republican strategist and lobbyist in Tallahassee.

“I would like to believe that the governor doesn’t think that we should deport 11 million immigrants, or that we should torture our enemies,” Stipanovich said, citing Trump’s views on immigration and war.

In Cleveland, Scott will lead a Florida delegation that includes Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who plans to run for governor in two years.

The state’s fourth statewide elected Republican official and leading vote-getter in the past two mid-term elections, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, won’t attend the convention and has faulted Trump’s rhetoric.

Atwater did not return calls seeking comment.

Trump’s two Florida rivals for the Republican nomination, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, aren’t going, either, but Rubio will give a videotaped speech while he works to hold onto his Senate seat.

The GOP’s past two presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, are nowhere near Cleveland.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Dario Moreno, a Miami political scientist and pollster who advises Republicans. “You have a Republican convention without former Republican nominees in attendance. I think that is an indication of the hard path that Trump has ahead.”

Wiles, who is now a lobbyist, said Scott’s support of Trump will reap major rewards if he wins.

“Their friendship is strong,” Wiles said. “There’s always a risk. You can’t even predict your own political future, never mind another candidate’s, but I think Donald Trump will do well in Florida.”

Four years ago, Scott was invisible on the presidential campaign trail, a sign of a lack of chemistry between him and Romney.

Scott’s dismal poll numbers back then would not have done Romney any good, anyway.

Those numbers have edged up somewhat. In the latest statewide Quinnipiac poll, Scott was viewed favorably by 43 percent of voters and unfavorably by 46 percent — “one of his best scores ever,” Quinnipiac said.

As the fight for the White House heats up following the party conventions, Florida Democrats will aggressively tie Trump and Scott together, using each to attack the other.

Some Republicans say it’s much better for Scott’s political future if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency.

That’s because history usually favors the party out of power in the first mid-term election after a presidential election, when Scott might run for U.S. Senate.

“If Donald Trump is in the White House, Democrats will be waist-deep in Republican blood,” Stipanovich said. “If Trump wins, there’s going to be hell to pay for Republicans in 2018.”

That includes Scott, who will conclude his second term as governor in 2018.

“Two years is such a long time,” Moreno said. “If Hillary has a rough two years, which is 50-50, he [Scott] could be on the upswing. But he’s taking a risk. It depends on how bad the defeat is for Trump.”

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow him @stevebousquet.