TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Two powerful forces combined to give Rick Scott just enough support to become Florida's next governor: $73 million of his own money, plus a wave of voter anger that delivered knockout victories to many other Republicans in the state.
A political unknown dismissed by some as a fringe candidate when he elbowed his way into the race just seven months ago, Scott narrowly beat Democrat Alex Sink on Tuesday by presenting himself as a "conservative outsider," highlighting his credentials as a successful businessman, relentlessly sticking to his message and tapping into voter anger at the government and President Barack Obama.
A jubilant Scott declared, "Florida is open for business," to a raucous crowd of supporters who stayed up late on election night waiting for the win to become a certainty.
"There were plenty of pundits, politicians and insiders who said this victory was impossible," he said. "But the people of Florida knew exactly what they wanted. They sent a message loud and clear. They said: 'Let's get to work.'"
Scott was ahead of Sink — the state's chief financial officer — by only about 1 percentage point by Wednesday, with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Thanks to voting reforms since 2000, there were no punch-card ballots, hanging chads or any chance of a recount — the margin of victory was too great.
In her brief concession speech Wednesday, Sink suggested that Scott's millions, combined with voter anger against Democrats, ruined her chances. Scott used his campaign cash to air a never-ending array of ads attacking her as an untrustworthy Tallahassee insider, even though she's in her first term of office.
"I wanted to wake up, if in fact we weren't successful, and be able to say that we lost because of forces beyond our control," Sink said. "And between the money and the mood of the country, those were the two forces beyond our control. And so here I am."
Money wasn't everything in California, where Republican and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spent nearly twice as much as Scott only to lose to Democrat Jerry Brown, or in Connecticut, where Republican pro wrestling mogul Linda McMahon is believed to have dropped $50 million in a Senate race won by Democrat Richard Blumenthal. But Democrats in general fared better in those states than they did in Florida, where tea party favorite Marco Rubio coasted to a Senate victory and the GOP picked up four congressional seats.
Scott, 57, was a leading opponent of Obama's health care reform plan last year, but most Floridians had never heard of the bald, lanky founder of hospital chain Columbia/HCA before the spring, when he started introducing himself in TV commercials that soon became ubiquitous.
He hired top-shelf political strategists early on to help him craft a succinct message in tightly scripted talking points from which he would rarely stray. He vowed to put all his effort behind creating jobs in a state that was dealt a body blow by the recession and mortgage crisis.
He delighted tea partyers with promises to cut taxes and get government out of the way of business. And he frustrated reporters with his unwillingness to answer direct questions and his refusal to sit for traditional interviews with newspaper editorial boards. He turned the term "career politician" into a slur and made it stick to his GOP primary opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum.
Voters tired of politics-as-usual embraced Scott as a fresh face and were willing to overlook the immense black spot on his business record: Columbia/HCA, which Scott ran as CEO in the 1990s, ultimately paid a record $1.7 billion fine for defrauding Medicare and other government programs.
Sink hammered him relentlessly over the fine, but Scott convinced many voters to accept his argument that he was guilty of nothing more than a failure to hire more auditors.
"You forgive and forget," said 74-year-old retiree Don Lajoie of Riviera Beach, an independent voter who was swayed by Scott. "We all have skeletons, don't we?"
Scott's story of growing up in meager surroundings, for a time living in public housing, and scraping his way to riches connected with voters desperate for a happy ending in an economy that's brought great hardship.
"He can make a change," said Toney Sleiman, a 60-year-old real estate developer from Jacksonville who attended Scott's victory party wearing a black T-shirt declaring the Republican the new governor and the phrase "I Told You So!" plastered across it.
Miami lobbyist Ron Book said it was Scott's jobs message, repeated over and over, that stuck with voters. Although Book has known Sink for 30 years, he met Scott and decided to support him.
"He understood what it was going to take to stimulate job growth," Book said. "Alex didn't get that message across to crossover voters."
Associated Press exit polling showed that Scott did better than Sink among men, white people and voters who said they disapproved of Obama's job performance. More than half the voters who described themselves as independents said they voted for Scott, and Hispanic voters were split between the two.
The specter of the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida flickered for a moment early Wednesday because Palm Beach County, the epicenter of that fight, was slow to report its results in the tight gubernatorial race. But later only a few thousand rejected paper ballots — too few to affect the outcome — remained uncounted. Sink would have needed to cut Scott's lead in half to 0.5 percent to get a recount.
Scott will replace Gov. Charlie Crist, who eschewed a second term to run for U.S. Senate but dropped out of the GOP primary as Rubio surged and lost to him Tuesday as an independent.
Sedensky reported from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Associated Press writers Tamara Lush and Curt Anderson contributed to this report.
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