Once upon a time, a political newcomer took advantage of a president’s upside-down approval ratings and rode that tea party outrage all the way to the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee.
Now, all these years later, we’re about to find out if political karma can be a glitch.
Plotting a new path toward the U.S. Senate, Gov. Rick Scott has suddenly come face-to-face with the realization that, this time, another president’s unpopularity could eventually drag him down.
Donald Trump’s outsize presence in the White House has done Republicans no favors in a number of recent elections. Not in governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey. Not in a state Senate race in South Florida in September. And not in the St. Petersburg mayoral race Tuesday.
We’ll never know for sure how much Trump backlash cost Rick Baker in his bid to unseat Rick Kriseman in St. Pete, but the circumstantial evidence doesn’t look good. Kriseman’s entire campaign was tailored around Trump scare tactics, and Baker was forced to act as if he were unaware the U.S. even elects a president.
Now, if that strategy succeeded against a candidate who had no affiliation with Trump, imagine the possibilities against Scott in a potential race against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Scott supported Trump. He praised Trump. He defended Trump. And now, as the president’s approval ratings dip to historic lows, he’s stuck with Trump.
"It’s not about the policies as much as the person," said former U.S. Rep. David Jolly. "I would be hard-pressed to identify any well-articulated platform for Democrats other than exploiting the anxiety around Donald Trump. The No. 1 reason for Democrats doing well is Trump in the White House."
Jolly has had some experience with this issue, and he can empathize with Baker’s plight.
A year ago, Jolly was running for re-election in a congressional district that had been redrawn to favor Democrats. Sort of like Baker, a former mayor in left-leaning St. Pete. Jolly was also unwilling to cater to the party’s far-right faction, not unlike the historically moderate Baker.
Jolly chose to attack Trump.
Baker chose to ignore Trump.
Neither strategy succeeded.
In his case, Jolly said any ground he gained with Democrats or independents was offset by losing the support of hard-core Republicans, as well as the GOP donor base.
The problem, he said, is not a candidate’s response to Trump.
It’s simply Trump’s presence.
"Once you get to the general election, any Republican who embraced Donald Trump in the primary is going to have a difficult time reaching a majority of voters in a purple state," Jolly said. "What we saw last night should be encouraging to Bill Nelson and should be a warning sign to all Republicans."
The situation is not terribly different from the conservative animosity toward Barack Obama that fueled the rise of the tea party in 2010. While Trump has lost some Republican support, the bigger issue is that his behavior has invigorated Democrats.
That could be a problem for Scott, considering Democrats still outnumber Republicans by roughly a quarter-million voters in Florida. And if Baker wasn’t able to dodge a flimsy party association with Trump, it will be impossible for Scott to disassociate himself after two years of full-throated support.
So does Jolly have any advice for Scott when it comes to Trump?
"Hopefully, he’s a man of prayer."