Health care executive Rick Scott spent millions of his personal fortune to introduce himself to Floridians and upset Attorney General Bill McCollum in the nasty Republican primary for governor. Now Scott and Democrat Alex Sink, who had token opposition Tuesday, should launch more meaningful general election campaigns. Voters need to know specifics on how each would address the challenges facing Florida, from persistent double-digit unemployment rates to a gaping $6 billion shortfall in next year's state budget. Bud Chiles, the independent, long-shot candidate, should help define that discussion.
Voters want to know what short- and long-term plans each candidate has for jobs and diversifying the economy beyond tourism and agriculture, including strategic investments in education. Voters care about tax fairness, good schools, transportation and affordable property insurance and health care — not the latest wedge issue.
Scott, who took on the Republican Party establishment, emerges from his $50 million primary bid renewed. He overcame repeated attacks on his controversial business career, which includes overseeing a hospital company that ultimately paid fines of $1.7 billion for Medicare fraud. Now the question is whether his conservative agenda will attract the independent voters and conservative Democrats he'll need to win a general election. In the primary he repeatedly tacked to the right, staunchly opposing federal health reform and Florida's acceptance of stimulus funds while supporting Arizona's immigration law.
But Scott also needs to do more than demagogue the "Washington insiders and Tallahassee insiders" to convince voters he has a better plan for Florida. In his victory speech Tuesday night, Scott frequently sounded as if he was running a federal campaign against President Barack Obama and Congress instead of vying to fix what ails a state that's been controlled for the last 14 years by Republicans.
Scott needs to show more than a superficial understanding of state government. He's pledged to cut property and corporate income taxes but fails to explain how he would also make good on promises to improve education investment. He improbably claims he can save $1 billion out of the state's $2.3 billion corrections budget. And his promise to create up to 700,000 jobs in Florida in seven years is more wishful thinking than a surefire bet.
The reserved Sink, Florida's chief financial officer, has a better grasp of state government but she faces her own challenges. Her lack of a rigorous primary leaves her unknown to most voters. Her moderate stance on issues such as health care (tacit approval of Obama's plan), support for closing sales tax exemptions to stabilize the state's tax base, and skepticism about FCAT's role in school grades offers broader appeal. But it's yet to be seen if Sink can fully communicate to the electorate a compelling vision for Florida's future. Her jobs and economic plans — creating business tax incentives and streamlining regulation — aren't distinctive. She'll need to explain why she has the better plan.
Inevitably, both Scott and Sink's campaigns are expected to turn to negative, personal attacks. Sink will pick up where McCollum left off, painting Scott as a corrupt executive whose company stole from taxpayers. Scott will tar Sink, a retired banker, with that industry's financial mess and claim she's an insider after one four-year term as CFO. But such distractions should not come at the expense of real focus on their competing visions for how to steer Florida in the right direction.