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Rick Scott's new ideology? 'Getting re-elected,' some say

Published Feb. 11, 2014

Two years ago nobody would have dreamed that Rick Scott, the multimillionaire political outsider crusading against Obamacare, would end up heading into a re-election campaign looking like the sort of pragmatic, moderate Republican tea party activists loathe.

But that's where Scott has awkwardly positioned himself — as another politician without clear convictions.

The controversial former health care executive launched his political career on fighting the Affordable Care Act, only to jump on board Wednesday and call for a dramatic expansion of Medicaid in Florida.

Likewise he promised to crack down on illegal immigrants on the campaign trail, but has done nothing in office. Candidate Scott vowed to shrink state government, and indeed his first budget unveiled at a tea party gathering included dramatic cuts to education. Today? He wants to give every teacher a raise and boasts of how much money he spends on schools.

"I can tell you what his ideology is: getting re-elected," scoffed John Long, chairman of the Tea Party of Florida, a former Scott supporter now working to recruit a "dependable" fiscal conservative to challenge Scott in a 2014 primary. "He spent a lot of money to get elected, and I don't think he got elected with the intention to be a one-term wonder. To prove it, he's alienated the very people who got him elected in the first place."

With his Medicaid decision this week, Scott officially and forever cast off his image as a tea party standard-bearer. Just glance at most of the recent comments on his Facebook page if you have doubts.

"Agreeing to expand Medicaid in Florida is your 'Charlie Christ hugs Obama' moment. Very disappointed in your decision. . . . Be proud to call yourself a RINO (Republican in Name Only)," wrote Jackie Soler-Gonzalez.

"First the SunRail (an Orlando commuter rail project), now Obamacare. Seems you are not standing firm on the topics that got you voted in sir. . . . Thank you for showing me I can't believe in anyone in politics," wrote Leslie Smith.

Scott is the seventh Republican governor to support the federal-driven expansion of Medicaid. But Scott also is a special case, having spent millions of dollars of his own fortune fighting the Affordable Care Act and launching his own campaign for governor attacking Obamacare at every opportunity.

"This is going to be devastating for patients, devastating for taxpayers. It's going to be the biggest job-killer ever," Scott said on Fox News after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law. "We're not going to implement Obamacare in Florida. We're not going to expand Medicaid, because we're going to do the right thing."

Nothing like a Barack Obama Florida victory, abysmal poll numbers, a diminished tea party and a looming re-election campaign to concentrate the mind.

Statewide elections in Florida are usually won in the moderate middle, not the hard right or left, and Scott is now lunging as fast as he can toward the center.

"Maybe soon he'll become an advocate for high-speed rail, who knows?" Republican-turned-Democratic former Gov. Charlie Crist quipped to the Florida Current Thursday. "There's quite a metamorphosis going on, and I don't think it's fooling anybody."

"The question is: Where is the governor's base now? What base is he shooting for? I don't know," added state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, suggesting that Scott had moved too far to the left with his Medicaid decision and a proposal to give $2,500 raises to Florida teachers.

Only 38 percent of Florida voters approved of Scott's performance in a January Quinnipiac poll. His recent policy reversals may have burned bridges with the last sliver of the electorate that had been enthusiastic about him.

"If there's anybody out there that was even remotely considering challenging him in a primary, I'm sure they're getting phone calls today," said Matt Nye, a tea party leader in Brevard County. "This is going to cost him dearly in his re-election."

In 2010, Scott spent more than $73 million of his own money to narrowly beat Democrat Alex Sink, and his potential to write more hefty checks in 2014 is likely to scare off most high-profile prospective challengers. But his moves to the middle have opened the door for someone from the right who could seriously damage Scott ahead of the general election.

"They would not deny him the nomination, but they would make it more difficult for him in the general election," said Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who ran Republican Gov. Bob Martinez's 1990 re-election campaign. That year, Marlene Woodson-Howard won 20 percent of the GOP primary vote.

Tom Gaitens, another Republican activist in Hillsborough County, agreed Scott faces real danger of tea party conservatives sitting out the next election.

"Without the base, a conservative Republican is doomed. I'm actually wondering if this is the first step in a decision not to run for re-election because it just doesn't make sense to spit in the face of people who stood with you," Gaitens said.

Ironically, the outsider-conservative who campaigned against the party establishment now is butting heads with establishment GOP leaders staking out more conservative positions.

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, remains skeptical of the Medicaid expansion and said that former Gov. Jeb Bush advised against the expansion during a recent private meeting with lawmakers.

"When I first heard he (Scott) was considering it, I was surprised," Weatherford said.

Former Attorney General Bill McCollum, who launched the lawsuit to overturn the health care law and whom Scott cast as too moderate in their 2010 gubernatorial primary campaign, said he was "very disappointed" by Scott's decision.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam dismissed Scott's suggestion that the state could sunset the Medicaid expansion after three years, when the federal government no longer pays 100 percent.

"It is naive at best to think that you would enroll 1 million people in three years and then decide to walk away from the program," Putnam said. "I think we all have an obligation to look beyond the window of our own time in public life and think about the long-term impact of these policies on Florida."

Times/Herald staff writers Katie Sanders and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com.

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