UPDATED - It's been more than a decade since Florida has elected a Democratic governor, but party leaders are seeing the next 15 months ahead of the 2014 elections as a chance to oust one of the most unpopular incumbents in the country—Republican Rick Scott.
The opening for Democrats comes as Scott continues to consistently poll unfavorably among Florida voters—last month his approval rating cracked 40% for the first time since he was elected in 2010. According to that Quinnipiac University poll, Scott trailed three potential opponents by double digits in head-to-head pairings; 50% of registered voters said he did not deserve to be re-elected.
Scott's grim public standing should come as no surprise. During his first term, Scott ended teacher tenure, rejected federal funding for high-speed rail, and signed bills requiring welfare applicants to drug screening and women to receive mandatory ultrasounds before an abortion. His administration gained notoriety for his attempt to purge ineligible voters unfairly targeting minorities. His voter law also required a photo I.D., restricted early voting and prohibited voters—particularly students—from changing their voting address at the polls.
The Democratic Governors Association has already poured $250,000 into the state to defeat Scott, who has pledged to spend $100 million. The contest could become one of the most expensive races in the country. All systems are a go, except one thing—a Democratic standard bearer.
Crist? Or could Sen. Nelson possess the right political punch?
Considered a swing state in presidential elections, Florida becomes even less predictable in midterm state-wide races. Scott was first elected as governor during the Tea Party's wave of congressional victories in 2010, defeating the state's CFO Alex Sink by a razor-thin margin.
Sink is now considering a rematch. Her husband, Bill McBride, was the 2002 Democratic nominee for governor and died last December. Sink said she will reveal whether she plans to open a gubernatorial bid at summer’s end. “This is a personal reflection for me but my husband very much wanted me to run,” Sink said.
The former Republican governor turned independent turned Democrat, Charlie Crist, is also likely to launch a bid. In a shocking twist he appears to be the Democratic establishment favorite. “There are a lot of people in the Democratic Party who won’t forget how hard Charlie campaigned in Florida and elsewhere for Obama,” said one national Democrat. Florida Republicans, however, are eager to take him on.
“Under Crist, the state of Florida lost over 800,000 jobs,” said Florida GOP Chairman Lenny Curry. “If he is their nominee, we’ll have the facts on our side about the Crist crash vs. the Scott surge [of jobs].”
Some Democrats believe Crist is highly vulnerable due to issue-and-party switches. Sink has not been shy about her concerns either.
“He’s new to this state as a Democrat and I personally want him explain his journey to becoming a Democrat,” she said. “He’s got to convince Democrats that he shares and will stand up for their values and he hasn’t made that case yet in my mind."
There has also been an underground push for a savior in the name of Sen. Bill Nelson, the fifth-generation Floridian and former astronaut with a long public service record in the Sunshine State, who many consider to be a gentleman in the blood sport of politics.
Fresh off an overwhelming victory in 2012 winning by 16 percentage points in a state where Obama barely squeaked by Romney, Nelson has the popularity, skill, and fundraising power to take on Scott and assure the Democrats a sweep. He's also a known quantity in Florida where voters have given him three convincing statewide wins and trust his judgment. More important, he’s an agile campaigner and at 70, Nelson who defeated one of Florida's preeminent political sons, Connie Mack, knows how to deliver a knock-out punch.
Nelson is still a popular statewide figure which was proven last year when outside groups spent more than $20 million attacking him. The massive financial effort Scott will deploy will be much less effective trying to tear Nelson down.
“He’s not satisfied with the gridlock in Congress and the ability to get things done,” said one Democratic strategist close to Nelson. “I don’t know what he’ll do, but I do know there's a lot of folks on both sides of the aisle that want him to run who are tired of the harm being done to the state."
When Florida Democrats gathered at last month’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, it was Nelson who stole the show, delivering an explosive condemnation of Scott, even eliciting a call-and-response from the audience. The usually polite and senatorial Nelson is not known for abrasive oratory and it took some Dems by surprise.
“This was not the Bill Nelson I’ve seen in the past,” said one Florida Democrat. “It was the most vitriolic speech I’ve ever seen him give.”
While Sink has not yet decided if a rematch is in her future, she has had conversations with Nelson and has encouraged him to run.
“I believe he’s our best chance to win,” Sink said. “I’d love to see him get in because I know he can take back the office,” she said.
Nelson is keeping his options open for now while Crist is expected to jump into the contest soon. Democrats prefer to make this a short campaign, while Republicans are ready to rumble.
“We are a new team with a turnout model based on quality over quantity much like Obama’s,” said GOP Chair Curry. “All of their potential candidates have significant flaws and weaknesses and we are certainly ready to expose them all.”