Pity Bill McCollum. Only weeks ago, he was skating effortlessly to the Republican gubernatorial nomination and comfortably leading Democrat Alex Sink in the polls.
Then, faster than you can say multimillionaire, the attorney general's aura of inevitability was shattered by a political neophyte who started spending money like Florida has never seen.
By the end of next week, controversial businessman Rick Scott of Naples will have spent about $11 million on TV and radio ads over six weeks — more than Charlie Crist spent overall in his lavishly funded 2006 primary against Tom Gallagher. Scott is on pace to spend $30 million by the Aug. 24 primary, ensuring at the very least that McCollum will come out of the primary strapped for money and bruised.
"A lot of people are definitely starting to get interested in Rick Scott. People who were saying, 'I'm 100 percent with McCollum,' are now becoming undecided," said Adam D. Smith, a 34-year-old Tampa accountant and Republican activist who likes Scott's outsider message. "The support for Bill McCollum is pretty much on the surface."
As a four-time candidate for statewide office, McCollum is the clear front-runner. The last two polls showed him leading by anywhere from 14 to 22 points.
But Scott is peeling McCollum's support and making a lot of his supporters nervous and resentful.
"The irony of this situation is that without a $300 million bank account, Rick Scott would be laughed out of the Republican executive committee meeting," said Republican consultant Rick Wilson.
Scott, former chief executive of the Columbia/HCA health care company, was ousted amid a federal investigation that resulted in the company paying a record $1.7 billion in fines as part of a settlement over fraudulent health care billing. He has acknowledged he made mistakes and learned from them, but says he personally knew of no wrongdoing.
Palm Beach County Republican chairman Sid Dinerstein, a McCollum supporter, predicted Scott ultimately can't overcome the taint of Medicare fraud.
"This is Florida — we're the Medicare state," Dinerstein said. "I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty: Rick Scott will never be governor of Florida. If he wins the primary, Alex Sink will be the next governor. She ought to be sending him money, not that he needs it."
McCollum tried to ignore Scott for several weeks, before it became clear he posed a serious threat.
"That's the Charlie Crist lesson on Marco Rubio," noted Republican consultant John Wehrung. "Crist waited too long on Rubio, and I think McCollum waited too long on Scott, but they're still within the window. It's not too late."
As of March 31, McCollum had less than $4 million to spend, and since May 21 has spent about $800,000 on TV ads featuring Jeb Bush. Sink's campaign has spent no money on TV advertising.
A shadowy political group tied to McCollum's campaign, Alliance for America's Future, has spent more than $900,000 attacking Scott's Columbia/HCA tenure. The McCollum campaign declined to discuss whether the attorney general will push for disclosure of the Alliance for America's Future funders.
Ironically, Scott's unprecedented spending on TV ads could wind up giving McCollum some help. Under Florida's public campaign system, McCollum is eligible to receive matching money from the state for every dollar Scott spends above $24.9 million. If Scott spends $30 million in the primary, McCollum would receive about $5 million from the state.
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.