TALLAHASSEE — The much-anticipated clash of Florida political titans will soon be official, as Florida Gov. Rick Scott, the two-term governor flush with cash and popularity, prepares to formalize his 2018 challenge to Bill Nelson, a three-term senator and the only statewide-elected Democrat.
For months, both sides have been taking less-than-subtle jabs at each other as battle lines were etched out on the midterm elections landscape in this closely watched race in the nation’s biggest battleground state. National groups from both parties have long been in narrative-setting mode, trying to frame their opponent in the worst possible light as this year‘s election cycle begins.
“I have a lot of respect for Bill Nelson; he has won statewide races, but he is in the fight of his life here,” said Brian Ballard, a prominent Florida lobbyist and Scott fundraiser. “To me, Rick Scott is the guy I don’t want to face statewide if I’m a Democrat.”
On Monday morning, Scott put to bed any lingering doubt about whether he would run when he said he would be making a “major announcement” on April 9. His staff would not elaborate on specifics, but Jackie Schutz Zeckman, Scott‘s chief of staff, resigned over the weekend and is being replaced by longtime staffer Brad Piepenbrink.
Schutz Zeckman is almost certain to end up on the campaign. She is one of Scott’s most trusted advisers, serving on both his campaigns and at various posts during his eight years in the governor’s mansion.
“Most people have assumed he is running, and this has all appearances of getting campaign apparatus ready in time for official announcement,” said lobbyist Bill Rubin, a close Scott ally who served as his policy chief during the governor’s 2014 reelection bid.
Scott’s expected decision to enter the race comes at a time when the governor is at his political peak. He has spent most of his time in the governor’s mansion with underwater approval ratings, but his shift from tea party-inspired budget slasher to a more moderate presence focused on spending for education, infrastructure and economic development has moved his approval ratings in a positive direction.
Scott last week signed a nearly $90 billion state budget, nearly $20 billion bigger than the $69 billion spending plan he signed in 2011, his first year in office. It’s a direct reflection of both the state’s recovery economy and Scott’s priorities shifting as he morphed from political newcomer to political animal.
A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed Scott’s approval rating at 49-40, the highest mark recorded by the closely followed survey, but Nelson edged him out 46-42 percent in a head-to-head matchup.
There were clear signs that Scott World was transitioning to a Senate race. His state-level political committee, Let’s Get to Work, has not received a dime since early January, a very noticeable departure from its normal frenzied fundraising pace. Even with Scott facing term limits, between January and November, the committee averaged $330,000 a month. That money has been spent on polling, advertising, political consulting and research as Scott worked to orchestrate his next political move.
Scott’s focus has shifted to New Republican, a federal committee branded as a pro-Donald Trump super PAC. The Scott-chaired committee has been raising money from what are traditional state-level donors, including Doral, Fla.-based Comprehensive Care Group ($250,000), The Villages retirement community ($100,000), and James Heavener, the Scott-appointed chairman of the University of Florida board of trustees ($50,000).
The messaging war had been in its infancy, but with the unlikely prospect of a serious primary challenge for either Scott or Nelson, both sides will now ramp up their efforts.
“Rick Scott’s record is a story of prioritizing his own self-serving politics at Florida’s expense,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “At every turn, he’s abused his position as governor to make himself richer and to help his cronies and donors.”
The early hits often foreshadow how groups will try and frame their opponent. For Democrats, it has been to bash Scott for what they see as him helping political allies and how Scott’s single focus on job creation has done little to boost Florida’s rural counties. State economists have reported that many of Florida’s rural counties lost jobs during Scott’s tenure.
“During Rick Scott’s time in office, his net worth has gone up by millions while a majority of Florida counties have failed to recover from the recession,” said Joshua Karp, a spokesman for American Bridge, a Washington-based liberal super PAC.
Both Karp and Bergstein have their roots in the Florida Democratic Party, an indication that national groups were building midterm elections staffs with an eye toward the Nelson-Scott showdown.
Republicans, meanwhile, have been working to tether Nelson to Hillary Clinton, who lost Florida in 2016.
“Hillary Clinton, Bill Nelson and the Democratic Party share the same elitist disdain towards the needs of hardworking Floridians,” said Katie Martin, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in announcing a new digital ad Monday. “Voters will be reminded that Nelson did everything he could to get Hillary Clinton elected president.”