Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott's peaceful campaign days are numbered

For Rick Scott, life is about to get more complicated.

The Florida governor is on political cruise control as he jets to his next jobs announcement, cherry-picks the questions he wants to answer and stockpiles millions for his re-election campaign. But he's in for a November to remember.

Charlie Crist will be all the rage at this weekend's Florida Democratic Party conference at Disney World, and he's expected to enter the race for governor next month on the heels of a law effective Nov. 1 that raises campaign donation limits from $500 to $3,000.

As a Democrat, Crist is a Charlie-come-lately who has a lot of explaining to do.

But even a reinvented Crist gives Democrats something they haven't had since the likes of Lawton Chiles two decades ago. He is a known quantity, a household name who gives long-suffering Democrats an identity.

The past four Democratic nominees for governor — Buddy MacKay, Bill McBride, Jim Davis and Alex Sink — all had the same problem: They didn't have the charisma to connect with enough people.

They also may have been too liberal for some voters, but the race for governor is biographical, not just ideological. This is where Scott's problems begin.

Familiarity and likability are Crist's strengths, and they are Scott's glaring weaknesses.

Scott is the rarest of political creatures, an incumbent estranged from his own constituents, and a governor in his third year of office who has the deer-in-headlights look of a neophyte. He has a connectivity problem with voters that no amount of new jobs can completely cure.

With his weak poll numbers, Scott looks beatable in a way that Crist and Jeb Bush never did.

Crist, of course, has his own challenges with a reputation as a serial candidate for the next highest office who lacks gravitas and doesn't have much to show for his previous term as governor. But people know all that and still like him because they know him. Crist is supremely effective at relating and emoting. Next to the wooden Scott, the contrast couldn't be sharper.

Scott has compounded his problems by zigzagging on issues. He endorsed Medicaid expansion but didn't fight for it, and his signature issue of 2013, a teacher pay raise, has fallen short of his iron-clad $2,500 promise. His Republican brand is tarnished by the mess in Washington, and now Crist is stalking him.

My hunch is that Scott will ignore Crist for as long as he can and employ a Rose Garden strategy, talking about jobs and education, while the Republican Party blasts at Crist. But he'll need a campaign apparatus, and the question is whether Scott's chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, is in for a reassignment (he was an adviser and debate coach in the home stretch of Scott's 2010 race).

Crist's early circle of advisers, including Dan Gelber, Steve Schale, Kevin Cate, Michelle Todd and former state Democratic Party leaders Mike Hamby and Bob Poe, are starved for a victory and spoiling for a fight with Scott.

The moment Crist declares his candidacy, it's game on.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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