Rumblings about the political ascension of U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, the head of the Senate GOP’s 2022 campaign arm, have been in the air for months.
In February, Florida’s junior senator broke ranks to roll out a controversial policy plan that Scott said was needed to define the party’s agenda — the details of which put him at odds with some other Republicans and became a favorite target of Democratic attacks.
Then he publicly feuded with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell over political strategy. Those disagreements continued after Election Day as the two men’s allies squabbled over the Georgia runoff, according to news reports.
But this week, the suspense over his leadership challenge ended swiftly. Republicans failed to retake the Senate, as Democrats defied historical trends to flip a key Pennsylvania seat blue. Days later, Scott soundly lost his longshot bid to be minority leader. The vote was 37-10 in favor of McConnell’s reelection, senators said.
The back-to-back losses of both the Senate majority and the effort to oust McConnell prompted some insiders, including Republicans, to question the wisdom of Scott’s strategy and where it leaves him longer-term.
Scott has been rumored to have national ambitions, but some observers wonder if these events could leave him the odd man out among Florida’s ambitious leaders as former President Donald Trump announces his 2024 run and Gov. Ron DeSantis basks in heightening presidential buzz. Sen. Marco Rubio also won reelection by a double-digit landslide.
“It’s clear in Rick Scott you have someone who remains restless and is trying to find a lane for the White House or some level of national prominence and there’s just not an opening right now for him,” said former Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly, now a political commentator. “So he’s trying to create one.”
Scott, for his part, has said he’s staying the course, and that his actions stem from his desire to hold the Washington establishment accountable.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era in the Senate Republican Conference,” he said in a statement after losing the leadership vote to McConnell. “My resolve to stand up for what Republicans across this nation stand for has never been stronger than it is today. ... I never thought for a moment that this fight would be easy, but I’m optimistic that, together, Republicans can rescue America.”
Why did Republicans fail to flip the Senate?
Before the midterms that would end up disappointing Republicans nationally, Scott had already been facing questions about how he was spending the money of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The committee created ads featuring Scott prominently, prompting accusations that he was using it to boost his own name ID despite not being up for reelection.
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Scott also bet big on trying to bring in small-dollar donors online, according to the New York Times, which at first helped him break fundraising records, then led to much of that cash quickly draining away as donations failed to make up for the expenses. In the aftermath of the election, two Republican senators suggested an audit of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Scott was leading, according to Politico. Scott responded by alleging financial misdeeds by the prior leadership of the committee.
Scott could not be reached for this story through the committee or his office. But Chris Hartline, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told other news outlets that the addition of new donors was a smart investment that will benefit the GOP, and that the committee’s spending is already regularly reported to the Federal Election Commission.
Amid the Republican finger-pointing, other reasons have emerged as possible contributors to why the party so drastically underperformed the expectations of a “red wave.”
McConnell and others have also blamed the quality of the candidates, many of whom were political newcomers backed by Trump with hard-right views some voters may have found too extreme.
Scott chose not to interfere in contested Republican primaries, but the Washington Post revealed that Democrats were interfering plenty — at times in favor of the more hardline Republican candidates who would be easier to beat.
“People voted for normal,” said U.S. Rep.-elect Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat from Broward County who worked in state government as a lawmaker under Scott and held a position in the DeSantis administration before running for Congress. “They don’t want people talking about election denial, they don’t want to see another Jan. 6th. ... I don’t think people care about Hunter Biden’s laptop unless in the laptop is the secret to lowering gas prices.”
Going for the king
Angst directed at McConnell is nothing new. But some have questioned why Scott would seek a promotion after a poor job review from voters.
In the aftermath of the midterms, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas also said Republicans should “fire” McConnell as their leader because the GOP had blown a “generational opportunity.” Several Republican senators, including Scott and Rubio, urged the delay of Senate leadership elections until after the Dec. 6 Georgia runoff. Trump has also called for Republicans to oust McConnell.
Yet when the votes were added up, the rebellion against McConnell failed to pose a serious threat.
“If you’re going to go after the king, you best take his head,” said Alex Patton, a Republican pollster in Gainesville. “(Scott) is going to be on the outs for a while. ... You don’t underestimate Mitch McConnell.”
Some political analysts have suggested that down the road, some Republican voters may appreciate Scott’s unsuccessful challenge to McConnell as an effort to represent the right flank of the GOP against the establishment.
In the lead-up to the vote, even U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who has publicly clashed with Scott multiple times, tweeted his support, saying: “Same People, Same Lot, Senators should vote for RICK SCOTT.”
“Some people may see it as disloyalty to challenge, but some people may give him credit for putting himself out there,” said Beth Rosenson, a University of Florida political science professor.
But Patton dismissed the idea that the failed leadership bid could be seen as beneficial. That’s just “good PR spin,” he said.
He did agree that the dual setbacks won’t be politically fatal.
Despite his long-rumored presidential ambitions, Scott said recently that he plans to run for reelection in 2024, according to a recording shared by his office.
Considering Florida’s rightward swing, Scott’s current political issues may not have any impact on a reelection bid in two years, multiple observers said.
In the meantime, though, he’s not expected to stop talking about his desire for change within the Republican Party.
“I believe it’s time for the Senate Republican Conference to be far more bold and resolute than we have been in the past,” he wrote in the letter to his colleagues announcing his challenge to McConnell. “We must start saying what we are for, not just what we are against.”