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Without writing a check, Rick Scott clears GOP Senate race field

Sen. Bill Nelson is gearing up for a race against. Gov. Rick Scott. (Times)

Sen. Bill Nelson is gearing up for a race against. Gov. Rick Scott. (Times)

Adam Putnam's 2018 gubernatorial campaign has been in the works for years, and the Republican agriculture commissioner has amassed $11 million in his campaign accounts.

But that's not stopping formidable Republicans like House Speaker Richard Corcoran and state Sen. Jack Latvala from plotting primary challenges. Nor is it keeping U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of northeast Florida from mulling a primary challenge, or ending widespread speculation that a wealthy outsider could jump in.

Likewise, assorted Republicans are actively ramping up primary campaigns in the open statewide races for attorney general and agriculture commissioner and sniffing around the chief financial officer one.

And the race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination? There isn't one.

Gov. Rick Scott hasn't even confirmed publicly he is going to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, and already he has scared away credible challengers.

"Nobody sane wants to run in a primary against Scott because he's just going to bury them," said Republican consultant Brian Burgess, who worked on Scott's 2010 campaign for governor and served as his communications director.

Scott, 64, has neither sky-high popularity, great charisma nor keen political instincts. But he has three of the most important assets a statewide candidate in Florida can have: money, money and money.

• The two-term governor starts out with virtually universal name recognition in Florida, which would cost tens of millions of dollars in television ads for most candidates to match. Nelson, a three-term senator who has served in elective office for 45 years, is not nearly as well known as Scott, who emerged from the business world just seven years ago.

• It's often overshadowed by his personal wealth, but Scott is a relentless money-raiser, content to spend hours dialing for dollars in a way many top-tier candidates are not. The term-limited governor, without acknowledging he is seeking any other office, has raised more than $3 million from dozens of businesses this year for his Let's Get to Work political committee, and launched a super PAC called New Republican led by his former campaign manager and chief of staff, Melissa Stone.

• At any moment, Scott can cut a check to his own campaign for tens of millions of dollars. Probably more than any other factor, this is what scares off potential rivals.

In the tea party wave election of 2010, the political newcomer from Naples spent about $75 million of his own money to snatch the GOP gubernatorial nomination from Attorney General Bill McCollum and then barely beat Alex Sink in the general election.

Scott, whose controversial tenure leading the Columbia/HCA hospital chain ended with a $310 million golden parachute, intended to spend none of his own money in his re-election campaign against Charlie Crist in 2014. But he decided he had little choice.

In the final weeks of the neck-and-neck campaign, Scott put in nearly $13 million of his own money to flood the TV airwaves with ads that helped him barely beat Crist. Scott allies say he has no intention of spending a penny of his own money against Nelson in 2018. But if he needs to, he can.

Scott's recently filed financial disclosure form for 2016 estimates his net worth at $149 million. That's a conservative estimate because it does not include an apparent $200 million windfall Scott received at the start of 2017.

On Jan. 3, the Japanese corporation Teijin closed on an $825 million deal acquiring Continental Structural Plastics (CSP), a manufacturer of composite materials used in cars in which Scott was heavily invested. The Florida Bulldog, an excellent investigative reporting outlet, reported recently that despite Scott's assets being hidden in a blind trust, assorted public records indicate he had a nearly $44 million stake in CSP in 2014 that would have been worth about $200.75 million after the sale early this year.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Scott said he had no involvement in the CSP sale, since his assets are in a blind trust.

"After Gov. Scott took office in 2011, he put all of his assets in a blind trust so they would be under the control of an independent financial professional," said Lauren Schenone. "As such, the governor has no knowledge of anything that is bought, sold or changed in the trust."

The Center for Responsive Politics estimates Nelson's net worth at $3.47 million.

Money is no guarantee of victory, of course. The same year Scott spent $75.1 million winning his governor's race, Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene spent about $23 million of his own money losing Florida's Democratic U.S. Senate primary to Kendrick Meek, and billionaire Meg Whitman spent $144 million of her own money losing California's gubernatorial race to Jerry Brown.

Still, Nelson, 74, has been blessed with weak, under-funded challengers like former U.S. Reps. Katherine Harris and Connie Mack IV. Scott is a whole new ballgame.

"If Rick Scott brings another $100 million to the race, it'll buy a tidal wave of scrutiny, devastating targeted ads, and more digital sophistication than Bill Nelson has ever faced before," said Burgess, the former Scott adviser.

Nelson understands that. He is raising money aggressively, and drawing more online donations than ever before. Scott can flood Florida TVs with attacks ads "simply by just sitting down and writing a check," Nelson said, insisting after a recent health care roundtable discussion in Tampa that rank-and-file voters will see who is more on their side.

"The American people and especially Floridians are very smart and they can usually sniff out who is the one that is really dedicated and has a heart for public service," he said, "and that's why they have rewarded me, election after election, over the years, and I'm very grateful for that, and I suspect, come November of '18, that it's going to turn out that same way."

Scott's central motivation for entering politics a decade ago was his staunch opposition to Obamacare, and he has touted his close involvement in shaping the repeal and replacement of Obamacare in the Trump administration. The Affordable Care Act is much more popular today, and Democrats hope Scott's strong ties to President Donald Trump and Trumpcare will benefit Nelson.

Never before has Nelson faced an opponent as formidable financially as Gov. Scott, who also has solid approval ratings in recent polls and can campaign as someone who did much of what he said he would do — focus on jobs for Floridians.

But it's also true that Scott barely won two elections in which a Republican wave swept the electorate across the country, and at this point it seems much more likely that the electoral wind will be at the Democrats' back.

Bill Nelson versus Rick Scott looks like a toss-up.

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.

Without writing a check, Rick Scott clears GOP Senate race field 07/12/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 12, 2017 12:17pm]
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