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Rick Scott puts GOP and Democrat Alex Sink in unfamiliar territory

Rick Scott just kicked the GOP establishment in the teeth.

The national GOP attacked him. The state GOP declared war on him. He won anyway.

Today, the once mighty Florida GOP establishment is reeling, looking utterly irrelevant and out of touch with its own voters.

Rick Scott, an optimistic and plainspoken businessman with a checkered past, is the new leader of the state party.

Even by Florida standards, we're in the midst of a stunningly unpredictable campaign season.

Here are five things to watch:

1. Can the Florida Republican Party unify after a bitter primary barely won by Scott?

"It's all up to Rick Scott — how he handles this victory, how magnanimous he is for those he defeated,'' said former state GOP chairman Al Cardenas. "If he reaches out with an olive branch, my sense is the party establishment will stand behind him."

The real question is why Scott would want the establishment to stand anywhere near him.

He beat Attorney General Bill McCollum by running against the establishment, by promising to end "business as usual in Tallahassee." He railed about the dubious financial dealings of indicted former GOP chairman Jim Greer and wrapped the scandal around McCollum's neck — drawing attacks from Florida Republican chairman John Thrasher.

Scott won even though Tallahassee special interests teamed up with GOP legislative leaders to funnel millions of dollars into TV ads depicting him as corrupt.

"It's time to clean house and hold government accountable,'' Scott said late Tuesday.

That may not be the most welcome message for Senate President Mike Haridopolos, House Speaker Dean Cannon, and House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, who stood at McCollum's side in Seminole County on Tuesday night.

"Intraparty struggles are often difficult to watch, and the contest in Florida has been a good example of that,'' said a statement from the Republican Governors Association, which also attacked Scott. "That said, the primary is over, Rick Scott is the nominee, the general election has begun, and our party now looks forward."

Good luck with that.

2. Do business interests flock to Alex Sink?

Keep an eye on the lobbyists and deep-pocketed business interests who dominate Tallahassee and overwhelmingly support Republicans. Many of them could be moving to help Democrat Sink.

Scott is a small government, antiregulation conservative, but he also owes nobody a thing and is unpredictable. Sink is a Democrat, but she is also a lifelong banker who understands business and has long-standing business ties.

"In Tallahassee tonight, the deal-makers are crying in their cocktails,'' declared Scott. Or maybe they're just ordering different drinks.

3. Does Sink change her message?

The one-term chief financial officer had been planning to campaign as a lifelong businesswoman and nonpolitician up against a career politician — McCollum. But now she is the incumbent and her opponent is the outsider.

Sink had an effective TV spot ridiculing McCollum and Scott for their negative campaigning, but it's unlikely she can resist going negative herself to attack Scott for his tenure leading a health care company that defrauded taxpayers.

4. How much will the White House and national Democratic Party jump into the fray?

The Obama White House cares much more about Democrats winning the Florida gubernatorial race than it does winning the open U.S. Senate seat. A Democrat as governor has repercussions for redistricting and the 2012 presidential race in America's biggest battleground state.

With Scott, Democrats face a political rookie who knows little about Florida and who carries a ton of baggage from his controversial business career. But he is also capable of spending tens of millions of dollars.

"If (national Democrats) really want to capture the Governor's Mansion, they are going to have to use a lot a resources they don't really have at their disposal or didn't plan to use in Florida," said Republican consultant Albert Martinez.

5. How warmly does Marco Rubio embrace Scott?

The Republican Senate nominee did not take sides in the governor's race and appeals to many of the same hard-core tea party activists as Scott did.

Rubio could benefit from Scott investing in GOP voter turnout efforts, but the Miami Republican is also very much a part of the GOP establishment that Scott may be combating. It could be an awkward courtship.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com. Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and John Frank contributed to this report.

Rick Scott puts GOP and Democrat Alex Sink in unfamiliar territory 08/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 10:56am]
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