Republicans Scramble to Save Governor in Florida Battleground

Elahe Izadi

The 2014 Florida governor's race is shaping up as one of the most consequential contests in the country, featuring two problematic candidates in a state President Obama won twice but where a Democrat hasn't been elected as governor in nearly two decades.

Gov. Rick Scott, a wealthy businessman with one of the lowest gubernatorial approval ratings in the country, will likely face former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat who inspires little enthusiasm from either party.

"It's a race that matters a lot. The governor of Florida is the person who drives the entire political discussion in the state," said Brian Ballard, a Republican lobbyist and Scott fundraiser. "If we're ever going to have a chance at winning the White House again, we're going to have to have a strong, muscular party, and you don't have that not being in power."

For Democrats, the stakes are equally high. The race is one of the Democratic Governors Association's top priorities. The governorship is a prize that has long eluded Florida Democrats—Florida hasn't elected a Democratic governor since 1994—and next year represents their best shot in some time. "Republicans want to hold on for dear life to the governor's mansion, and Democrats would like nothing more than to take it back," said University of South Florida political-science professor Susan MacManus.

In 2010, Scott spent more than $85 million, including $73 million of his own money, on his bid. Scott has already raised nearly $4.6 million for his reelection during the first three months of the year, and he could raise as much as $100 million, an amount Ballard has said the campaign will cost. Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry says he doesn't expect Scott to have to pour his own money into the campaign.

"We're always outspent in Florida, that's no question, but we don't need to match [Scott] dollar for dollar to win," says Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Arceneaux. "We're going to have enough money to reach out to our voters and turn them out."

Strategists from both parties say they expect their opponents to run negative campaigns. And there's plenty of fodder to do so.

Scott has one of the lowest approval ratings of any governor. A March Quinnipiac survey showed only 32 percent of voters said he deserved to be reelected. Thirty-six percent approved of the job he was doing (49 percent disapproved) and only 33 percent had a favorable opinion of him (46 percent had an unfavorable view). The poll showed Crist with a healthy lead over Scott, 50 to 34 percent.

"His numbers have never moved out of the near-death territory," says Danny Kanner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. "What we expect is he'll run a full character-assassination campaign against whoever the Democratic nominee is, because it's the only path for him to run on, but it won't work."

Part of the task Republicans have on their hands is to paint a fresh picture of Scott, portraying him as a governor who helped spur job growth. He is already touring the state, talking up his push for teacher pay raises and elimination of sales taxes on manufacturing equipment. "Before we get into talking about Charlie Crist, the governor is smart and will introduce himself in a very dignified and thoughtful way, and really lay out the solid messaging I've seen so far," said Ballard.

But much of that positive messaging is likely to be accompanied by an early dose of negative attacks against the former Florida governor and his record. Former Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer, a onetime Crist ally who pleaded guilty this year to money laundering and theft, has made damaging accusations against Crist, who has denied them all. A senior Republican in Florida said such skeletons in the closet won't drive the campaign, but "clearly the connections between him and Greer deserve another look at the records."

"No one's drinking the Kool Aid over here. We all know it's going to be tough, and we know how formidable it's going to be, but we believe not only will we have a message of contrast that will win, we've got a chance in this state," said the senior GOP official.

Crist hasn't made his candidacy official yet, but Democrats expect him to run.

"[Crist has] got 100 percent name ID, and a strong fundraising base whenever he's ready for it. If you can be in the bulls-eye for 14 months rather than 18 months, what's the point?" said Democratic operative Steve Schale. "I do know that's very much a part of his thinking at this point. He's not feeling full pressure to get in this."

Crist will also have to win over skeptical Democrats, given his party switch was caused by his struggles against Marco Rubio in the 2010 GOP Senate primary. Questions about his core principles could undercut enthusiasm from the party faithful. In Democratic circles, there's still speculation over Sen. Bill Nelson or 2010 Democratic nominee Alex Sink running. Last month, Nelson, who just won reelection, said, "I have no intention of running." But national Democrats say he could still run.

"The fact that there's all this talk about Bill Nelson running is a signal that there's a significant portion of the Democratic Party that's uncomfortable with a Charlie Crist candidacy," said Florida GOP operative Justin Sayfie. "Typically when that happens, that reflects a lack of enthusiasm about your current choices."

Still, many establishment Democrats in Florida say the motivation to get Scott out of office will trump any reservations more partisan members of their party have about Crist's past as a Republican.

"They just want something other than Rick Scott as governor, and for Democrats, Gov. Crist is often remembered as the guy who stopped a bad education law," said Schale. "Certainly there's some angst among the chattering class and people like that, but you don't feel the same angst from actual voters."

Arceneaux said one of the party's biggest priorities is ensuring Democratic voters that don't regularly show up in non-presidential elections turn out in 2014. "We can't have the disengagement of our voters that happened in 2009 and 2010. We have to keep folks energized," he said.

Arceneaux said he suspects President Obama, whose hug with Crist hurt his 2010 Senate campaign, will come to Florida to campaign for the eventual Democratic nominee.

And even as Republicans hope to portray Crist as a flip-flopper, it could be a complicated narrative to less-partisan voters. Scott ran his 2010 campaign attacking Obama's health care law, but then he eventually agreed to expand Medicaid in the state (which was rejected by Republicans in the state Legislature). In the March Quinnipiac poll, a 50 percent majority of respondents said they received Crist's party switch positively, saying he's a "pragmatist"—more than the 40 percent who said it shows he "lacks core beliefs."

It's unclear who would hurt more from an ugly campaign. Crist has been out of public office lately, so negative messaging could hurt his attempts to reintroduce himself to voters. But nasty ads could backfire for Scott, given his likeability is already so low.

"If they start [negative campaigning] too early, voters are going to turn off to both of them, and voters will resort back to what they liked to begin with," and that will benefit Crist, said Ballard. "They have to get Gov. Scott into a place where he's considered, where people have a good feeling about him."

MacManus said there's evidence showing that voter turnout drops in areas where the nastiest campaign ads air. "If you're a casual voter, you just say, 'To hell with all of them.' "

CORRECTION: Crist dropped out of the 2010 Senate primary to run as an independent, losing to Marco Rubio in the general election.  An earlier version of the story incorrectly reported he lost to Marco Rubio in the primary.