The Republican candidate for governor with years of legislative experience and scant support in the opinion polls dropped out of the race on Monday. The Republican candidate with no political experience who headed a corrupt hospital company is moving up in the polls and is the only serious primary challenger to the favorite, Attorney General Bill McCollum.
The reason for both developments, of course, is money.
State Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland ran out of cash before she ran out of ideas. Health care executive Rick Scott paid for more than $6 million in television ads out of his own pocket and captured 22 percent of the vote in the latest St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9/Central Florida News 13 poll. He has bought his way into the race and can no longer be dismissed as an obscure wealthy businessman indulging his fantasy.
There ought to be room in statewide races for candidates like Dockery. She has a commendable legislative record, recently fighting to force changes in Orlando's plan for light rail and promoting open government. She is thoughtful and willing to stand up to the Republican establishment, which made it even harder to raise money. In earlier eras, Democrats such as Lawton Chiles, Reubin Askew and Bob Graham emerged from the relative obscurity of the state Senate to win their first statewide campaigns and become outstanding public servants. At a time when $6 million in television ads can buy an anonymous hospital executive credibility in opinion polls, the notion that an underfunded legislator could compete in a race for U.S. Senate or governor seems sadly quaint.
One solution is a viable system of public campaign financing. Dockery did not last long enough to take advantage of public matching money. Even if she had, the Legislature has shot so many holes in the system that it does not really level the playing field. To further ensure only the wealthiest candidates like Scott can challenge the status quo, lawmakers had the nerve to place Amendment 1, which will repeal public campaign financing altogether, on the November ballot. Dockery voted last year for the amendment, so perhaps her exit from the governor's race because she could not compete financially is a fitting end.
The real losers are Florida Republicans, who will have fewer alternatives in the August primary. McCollum is the candidate of the conservative establishment, a career politician in a year when voters are angry with incumbents from both political parties. Scott has bought his way into becoming the challenger with his disarming television ads, and he is about to get a lot more serious scrutiny.