Thursday, April 26, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott invisible in GOP primary campaigns

TALLAHASSEE — Someone is conspicuously absent from the campaign brochures produced by Republican candidates in Florida this summer:

Gov. Rick Scott.

Hobbled by weak poll numbers, awkward on the stump and still somewhat estranged from the party establishment that shunned him in 2010, Scott is invisible on the campaign trail across Florida.

He also has steadfastly avoided taking sides in party primaries to a greater extent than either of his two predecessors, Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush.

Colorful images of Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio can be seen everywhere in GOP circles. But candidates sometimes appear to go out of their way to avoid showing Scott's picture.

In the hotly contested Republican primary for a Tampa Bay Senate seat, Rep. Jim Frishe hands out brochures featuring pictures of him with three stalwarts of the GOP: Bush, Rubio and U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. But not Scott.

In the GOP primary for a Jacksonville Senate seat, Rep. Mike Weinstein's flier prominently features him with a smiling Rubio. A much smaller photo shows Weinstein, one of Scott's first supporters, standing between Scott and Bush.

A flier that promotes Chris Nocco for Pasco County sheriff shows seven leading Republicans who support him. Scott's face is nowhere to be found, even though he appointed Nocco sheriff last year.

"Campaign fliers keep coming out, and not one mentions the governor," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, one of the seven Republicans in Nocco's brochure. "It's very different."

The explanation is simple, Fasano said: Campaign fliers are assembled with great care and based on polling data. With Scott's poll numbers still upside down, Republicans prefer to keep their distance from him, relying instead on endorsement power from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam or Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Scott is keeping his distance, too. He has not campaigned with presidential candidate Mitt Romney or U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, who has a huge lead in polls in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

"I'm not planning to get involved," Scott said. "Let the primaries work. I'll be supportive of the Republican candidates after the primaries."

Scott's avoidance of primary politics strikes some Republicans as perfectly logical. He ran for governor in 2010 against the party establishment, did not seek endorsements and spent $73 million of his own money.

"I doubt seriously that he feels much obligation to anybody," said Tom Slade, a former Florida GOP chairman who was statewide co-chairman of Scott's 2010 effort. "I don't think Rick Scott knows how to be a politician. And when you've got that much money, you don't need endorsements."

Until now, it has been common practice for candidates to use photos of themselves with the governor as a means of flaunting their friendliness with the titular head of their party.

The endorsement of a governor is usually highly coveted, but Scott's may be devalued because of polls showing that Floridians feel ambivalent about him after 18 months in office.

A Times/Herald/Bay News 9 Mason-Dixon survey released last week showed 40 percent approved of Scott's job performance and 51 percent disapproved.

Any Republican who must face a Democratic opponent in the Nov. 6 general election also is aware that Scott is less popular with independents and reviled by Democrats, according to the statewide poll of 800 registered voters taken the week of July 9.

Some of Scott's earliest supporters hoped in vain to receive an endorsement from him.

One early supporter of Scott in 2010 was Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, who's running for a Senate seat in eastern Hillsborough County as an underdog against former Senate President Tom Lee, who's backed by Senate Republican leaders.

Burgin's first TV ad depicts her with Rubio, not the governor.

Weinstein, a civic leader and former prosecutor from Jacksonville, walked door-to-door with Scott in 2010, introduced him to party activists and defended Scott against a Republican TV ad that accused him of committing fraud as a hospital executive.

"I was very unhappy with the establishment implying that Rick had done something almost criminal," Weinstein said in recalling the ad, in which a former U.S. attorney mocked Scott for saying he "didn't know" about Medicare fraud at his company.

Now, Weinstein needs help in a difficult race for a Jacksonville-area Senate seat, but Scott isn't returning the favor.

Weinstein must watch helplessly as Jeb Bush appears in TV spots praising opponent Aaron Bean as someone "I counted on, and so can you."

Despite Scott's overall middling poll numbers, two-thirds of Republicans statewide approved of his performance in the Mason-Dixon poll.

In the GOP stronghold of Jacksonville, Weinstein said conservatives admire Scott, and his support might assure victory, but he said he didn't ask for an endorsement because it would have "put him on the spot."

"This is a very conservative district," Weinstein said. "Rick Scott's endorsement would be a game-changer."

Instead, Weinstein's brochure features in bold red letters, "Endorsed by Pam Bondi."

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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