Before we embrace a new year of wild and unpredictable Florida politics, it's time to honor the biggest winner and loser in 2013.
Let's start with the year's political loser. The choice was easy: Sen. Marco Rubio.
His diminishment over the past 12 months has been so dramatic, it's easy to forget that he began 2013 consistently at the top of Republican polls of preferred 2016 presidential nominees, still widely viewed as the face of the GOP's future.
Today, Rubio looks more like just another ambitious U.S. senator constantly positioning himself for political advantage. His often half-hearted leadership on comprehensive immigration reform drew the wrath of Glenn Beck/Ann Coulter Republicans, without winning over a lot of establishment Republicans who saw him as more cautious than courageous.
Cheerleading for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's government shutdown did little to help Rubio's stature either.
Nationally, Sens. Mike Lee, Rand Paul and Cruz have replaced Rubio as the Senate's tea party heroes — he was actually booed at an Americans for Prosperity conference in Orlando this fall. In Florida, he has been invisible on the flood insurance crisis faced by thousands of his constituents.
Winner of the year in Florida politics was a tougher pick. Not.
We could make a case for Charlie Crist, a lifelong Republican who already seems to have won the support of Florida Democrats. Or populist Republican Mike Fasano, who was appointed Pasco County tax collector mainly because Tallahassee Republicans wanted to muzzle him but he still wields tremendous influence.
But our political winner of 2013 is Gov. Rick Scott, who heads into a re-election year presiding over the lowest unemployment rate Florida has had in five years — 6.4 percent.
Granted, his constant image makeovers have done little or nothing to improve his personal appeal or poll numbers. Yes, his office and campaign leadership teams have become messy havens for back-stabbing and finger-pointing. His promise of bringing private-sector competence to government has produced turbulence and problems at multiple agencies, from education to child protection.
But the bottom line is Scott no longer looks like the dead man walking that he did a year ago.
His promise to spend $100 million on his re-election scared away any credible primary opponent — a very real worry in Scott's world. Reeling in money at a clip of roughly $88,000 a day, he already has more than $22 million in his campaign account.
Meanwhile, the favorability ratings of likely Democratic nominee Crist have dropped in recent months, and some top Democratic fundraisers are still pining for Sen. Bill Nelson. And President Barack Obama appears to be more of a hindrance to Democratic candidates than a help.
Scott has a tough campaign ahead in 2014. But with the improving economy, he looks a lot more formidable at the close of 2013 than he did at the close of 2012.
Allen West, the firebrand former congressman from South Florida, last week enthusiastically endorsed Mark Bircher, an airline pilot and retired Marine Corps Reserve brigadier general, for the open Pinellas congressional seat.
Said West: "Brigadier General Mark Bircher is exactly the type of citizen-servant our country needs on Capitol Hill — and precisely the type of leader the Left would like to suppress. … But first, BGen Bircher must win a January 14th Republican primary in which he is pitted against a pair of much more experienced and well-known politicians: David Jolly, Young's former general counsel and lobbyist; and Kathleen Peters, a pro-choice state representative. BGen Bircher understands his oath of service has no statute of limitations. Americans must rally behind leaders like this warrior and send a message that we want principled men and women, those who have been willing to lay down their lives for this great nation in our nation's capital."
On Bay News 9
Check out Republican state Rep. Kathleen Peters, vying for the GOP nomination to succeed the late C.W. Bill Young in Congress, on Political Connections today on Bay News 9. The show airs at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Worthy of speculation
Gov. Scott may be our winner of the year, but the way his advisers have handled his running mate selection has been amazingly clumsy. Note to Team Scott: When leaking your list of lieutenant governor finalists, it's best to inform the finalists first so that half of them don't immediately withdraw their names from consideration.
Lately the speculation is heavy that the favorite is state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, but that still may be a long shot.
What about a fifth name that may be the real candidate: House Speaker Will Weatherford?
The talk supporting Weatherford is worth considering. He's young, telegenic, was featured as a rising star by the American Conservative Union, and is the son-in-law of one of Florida's most-respected Republicans, former House Speaker Allan Bense. Plus, he's a favorite son of the Tampa Bay area, home country of Scott's likely challenger, Crist, and he won't be running for anything after his term expires in November.
There is one problem: adding Weatherford to the ticket anytime before the legislative session ends in May would not work too well on so many levels, including the constitutional separation of powers doctrine. So, consider this: speculation continues about Lee and maybe even a new short list throughout the spring. Finally, with the legislative session tightly wrapped up, the governor makes his pick. Weatherford and Scott become the ticket. Boom. Momentum.
Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this week's Buzz.