Polls regularly paint Rick Scott as America's most unpopular governor, and plenty of Republicans fear that Democrats are well positioned to take back the Governor's Mansion for the first time since 1999.
Time for a more skilled politician to step up and save the Florida GOP?
In theory a primary challenge makes sense: Scott has never had deep support in the party, and his recent shift to the middle is antagonizing supporters on the right without necessarily winning moderates who have been sour on him from the start. But normal considerations are out the window when you're talking about an incumbent who can spend tens of millions of his own money to ensure a second term.
A new Florida Insider Poll by the Tampa Bay Times finds more than 7 in 10 of the state's most experienced politicos say Scott is unlikely to face a serious primary challenge.
The poll — which included 131 campaign operatives, fundraisers, lobbyists, political scientists and a few recovering political reporters — produces a good snapshot of conventional wisdom at this early stage. Florida politics, of course, are always unpredictable, and it's worth remembering that at this stage of the 2010 cycle, no one had heard of Rick Scott.
"It is safe for a GOP contender to say a few negative comments about the governor this early out. This will allow them to separate themselves in a future gubernatorial election," said one Republican. "All the GOP contenders will fall in line. At the end of the day, who has $100 million of their own to spend on their own campaign? Checkmate, Rick Scott."
Said another: "Rick Scott has made himself quite vulnerable in an off-year primary where he will be the top of the ticket. No Marco Rubio to lift turnout, and Scott has lost the confidence of conservatives and key Republican clubs around the state. Imagine how Republican Senate and House candidates are going to feel about that photo op when Rick comes to town. He has negative coattails, and it's in the best interest of the Republicans to take him out."
We asked who would make the strongest primary challenger: Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Senate President Don Gaetz or House Speaker Will Weatherford. Putnam was the clear favorite with 53 percent picking him, Bondi and Atwater each earned 15 percent and Weatherford 14 percent. Still, 55 percent said Scott would win even against the strongest challenger.
Sorry, Mr. Senate President, but not a soul named you the strongest primary candidate.
Nearly all of those surveyed were confident Scott will in fact run for a second term, but Democrats and Republicans split on the likelihood of him winning. Strikingly, neither the Republican nor Democratic insiders were overwhelmingly confident about the 2014 governor's race. Three out of four Democrats predicted Scott would lose re-election, while just 59 percent of Republicans predicted he would win a second term.
"I do not know if Scott will win, but he could win," said one Republican. "You could liken Scott's situation to that of Bob Martinez in 1990, except Martinez wasn't rich and no potential Democrat candidate, including (Charlie) Crist, is a Lawton Chiles. Edge to Scott."
"Rick Scott will win re-election by making the race a referendum on Charlie Crist's lack of values," said a Democrat. "If Democrats nominate a well-funded alternative to Crist, then Rick Scott better pack his bags."
Overall, our Insiders were evenly divided on whether Scott helped himself politically by declaring his support for expanding Medicaid coverage in Florida, though 65 percent of Democrats said he helped himself and only 41 percent of Republicans said he helped himself.
Our Florida Insiders included 68 Republicans, 52 Democrats, and 11 independent or third party registrants. They are listed on the Buzz politics blog at tampabay.com.
Dyer for governor? No
We can scratch another Democrat off the list of contenders for governor in 2014: Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer announced in his state of the city speech last week that he won't run. For those keeping track, Democratic prospects include Crist, former state Sen. Nan Rich, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and former Miami-Dade Commissioner Jimmy Morales.
Preview of session
Check out Political Connections on Bay News 9 today at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. for a preview of the 2013 legislative session featuring House Speaker Weatherford and Senate President Gaetz.
Alex Sink no longer sounds like a likely candidate for governor, but the former CFO and 2010 gubernatorial nominee will join Democratic activists in Pinellas on March 14 to celebrate the 85th birthday of Greater Pinellas Democratic Club president Harvey Morgenstein. For 23 years he and Betty Morgenstein, beloved and sometimes feared figures in Tampa Bay Democratic politics (pity the aspiring candidate who skips his well-attended dinners), have led the group. The event is at Banquet Masters, 8100 Park Blvd, Pinellas Park, starting with cocktails (cash bar) and social time at 6 p.m., followed by a buffet dinner at 6:30 ($15). For reservations, contact Betty Morgenstein at (727) 360-3971.
Constance Humburg, Tia Mitchell and Alex Leary contributed to this week's Buzz. Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.