Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Florida Governor: Just Where Exactly Did Rick Scott Come From?

By Stuart Rothenberg

The story of Florida gubernatorial hopeful Rick Scott (R) surely is one of the weirder stories in what is already an unusual political year.

Scott began his bid for the state’s top office as a political unknown who had run a company, Columbia/HCA, which was accused of defrauding Medicare and settled the case by paying fines and restitution amounting to $1.7 billion. That’s billion, with a “b.”

Now, Scott is the odds-on favorite to win the Aug. 24 GOP primary over state Attorney General Bill McCollum, making him his party’s gubernatorial nominee in the fall.

Scott would go into the general election no worse than even money against the likely Democratic nominee, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, and Independent Bud Chiles, son of former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.

An attorney who came from a Kansas City, Mo., family of modest means, Scott started the Columbia Hospital Corp. in 1987. The company grew by buying hospitals until 1994, when Scott purchased HCA Inc., combining the two companies into one, Columbia/HCA.

That company continued to grow, but Scott left it in 1997, ousted by the company’s board of directors during the unfolding fraud investigation. According to Scott’s campaign website, by that time Columbia/HCA had “become the world’s largest health care company.”

After leaving Columbia/HCA, Scott bought or founded other health-care-related businesses. But perhaps his next dramatic move was the founding of Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, a national advocacy group “dedicated to the free market principles of choice, competition, accountability and personal responsibility in health care.”

CPR, started with $5 million of Scott’s money, was a vocal opponent of the public option that was espoused by many Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Scott appeared in many of the group’s TV spots.

When Scott, who has never run for office before, announced his bid for the GOP nomination on April 9, the Republican race looked like a foregone conclusion, with McCollum not seriously challenged for his party’s nomination.

An April 8-13 Quinnipiac University poll found McCollum leading state Sen. Paula Dockery (who dropped out of the primary in late May) 56 percent to 7 percent in the GOP race and Sink by 4 points in the general election. Scott’s own initial poll in the race showed him trailing McCollum 54 percent to 2 percent in the primary.

Scott’s late entry and massive media buy took everyone by surprise.

The first public survey with Scott in the race, conducted May 3-5 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, showed McCollum leading Scott 38 percent to 24 percent, with Scott’s name ID at 28 percent favorable/1 percent unfavorable. Ten days later, an Ipsos Public Affairs survey showed McCollum’s primary lead at 46 percent to 22 percent.

By early June, a Quinnipiac poll had Scott leading McCollum in the primary, 44 percent to 31 percent, while a McLaughlin & Associates poll for the attorney general found the GOP race even at 40 percent each.

An automated July 16-18 Public Policy Polling (D) survey showed Scott leading the primary 43 percent to 29 percent for McCollum.

Remember, the guy leading the Republican primary was forced out of his job because his company had to settle a massive fraud case that amounted to $1.7 billion. Again, that’s billion, with a “b.”

How did Scott get to this point, where he is likely to be the GOP nominee?

First and most obviously, Scott’s money made the difference. He has put at least $20 million into his race and outspent McCollum by about 2-to-1, according to a Scott campaign insider. His money has underwritten a blizzard of ads, and he was so fast out of the gate that his candidacy took people in the state, including McCollum, by surprise.

Second, Scott, bald and with a long neck, doesn’t look or sound like your usual politician. His TV ads, produced both by OnMessage Inc. and Nelson Warfield, have effectively presented him as a force for change and McCollum as a career politician. Those are perfect messages this cycle.

Even a McCollum TV endorsement spot featuring popular former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has not moved the needle for the attorney general, and Scott campaign strategists believe that multiple McCollum endorsements, including those of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), have only reinforced the change/politics-as-usual contrast that has benefited Scott so heavily.

Third, Scott appears to have benefited from an early McCollum mistake that presented the insurgent with an opening.

Shortly after the Arizona Legislature passed the state’s controversial immigration enforcement law, McCollum commented, “I don’t think Florida should enact laws like this — quite that far out.” A week later, after the Arizona Legislature amended that law, McCollum expressed his support for it. Two days later, when asked again about the Arizona law, McCollum responded, “We don’t need that law in Florida.”

Finally, although McCollum and his allies have hammered Scott in paid media over Columbia/HCA’s $1.7 billion settlement, voters seem to be ignoring Scott’s warts, whether because they are more concerned with how government is affecting their lives or they have become so cynical about politicians that none of them look like bargains.

If this isn’t an isolated case, it raises questions about the efficacy of personal attacks against candidates who otherwise can reasonably present themselves as vehicles for change.

It’s hard to believe that Scott would be doing as well if he were running in any other cycle or, possibly, against a different kind of opponent. But this may just be the perfect cycle for him, both in the primary and in the general election. Democrats ought to be careful about treating him as a weak general election opponent.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 27, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.