With the nominations of Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat former Gov. Charlie Crist in Tuesday primaries, the two political arch-foes now head into the last two months of a battle that pundits agree will set a new record for Sunshine State campaigns and cost as much as $200 million.
A former healthcare executive who had neither held nor sought elective office until he ran for governor, Scott made enemies by doing in Tallahassee precisely what he promised on the campaign trail. He slashed state spending for several programs and declined federal funding for a proposed high-speed rail system.
The AFL-CIO recently announced it was raising $300 million for an independent effort to unseat Republican governors in five states: Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and — you guessed it — Florida.
But after months of polls showing Scott trailing Crist, a recent survey by the Florida Chamber of Commerce gave the governor 44 percent to Crist's 41 percent among likely voters statewide. When Libertarian nominee Adrian Wyllie was included in the survey, Scott led Crist by a margin of 41 percent to 35 percent for Crist, with 4 percent for Wyllie.
"[The] change in polls is because the state is doing well, and even the most strident detractors of Gov. Scott concede Florida is doing better than it was four years ago," said Fort Lauderdale attorney Ed Pozzuoli, former Broward County GOP chairman and a top fundraiser for former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
Pozzuoli pointed to the Sunshine State's unemployment rate of 6.4 percent, which is down from the 11 percent it was when Scott took office. In addition, Pozzuoli noted, "our state has paid back $4 billion to bond holders and eliminated the state tax on manufacturing equipment. This has led to creation of the most private sector jobs in modern state history."
Republicans in Florida badly want to defeat Crist as much as they want to re-elect Scott. As governor, he vigorously embraced the cause of climate change, put solar panels on the roof of the governor's mansion, and signed an executive order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
In 2009, Crist's popularity plummeted when, after accepting federal stimulus money, he embraced President Barack Obama during a Florida visit by the Democrat. He later abandoned a primary bid for the Republican Senate nomination as polls showed him trailing conservative Marco Rubio and he ran as an independent. (Crist placed second to Rubio in a three-candidate race).
In 2012, having delivered a stirring speech on Obama's behalf at the Democratic National Convention, Crist formally changed his voter registration to Democrat at a White House Christmas Party as the re-elected president looked on.
But like many other Republicans who switch parties, Crist carries the burden of his efforts to sound and act like a conservative in his former party.
In 2008, as he was trying to become John McCain's vice presidential running mate, the Floridian emphasized to this reporter that he was strongly pro-life, and was "supporting the marriage amendment in Florida which would ban gay marriage."
Like his Republican predecessor Jeb Bush, Crist strongly backed school vouchers and greater local control of education and recalled that "when the opening came for state education commissioner, it was Gov. Bush who recruited me to run. If there was an issue we disagreed on, I can't think of it. He was a great governor."
"Now, on virtually every issue, he has changed over the past two to three years," Pozzuoli told Newsmax. "Now he's courting the teachers' unions, and that's a far cry from the days as a 'reformer' fighting for vouchers and charter schools. It will be interesting to see his stand on the penal reform issue, considering that when he was state attorney general, he supported chain gangs in the state penitentiary and was known as 'Chain Gang Charlie.'"
But Scott is not a rock-ribbed conservative on every issue.
As a private businessman in '09, Scott spent $5 million of his own money to create Conservatives for Patients' Rights and become a television spokesman against Obamacare. When the Supreme Court upheld the controversial legislation in 2012, Scott vowed Florida would not expand Medicaid.
But on February 20, 2013, the governor told reporters that while he still opposed setting up a state exchange, he now supported a three-year Medicaid expansion.
He explained at the time that "our options are either having Floridians pay to fund this program in other states, while denying healthcare to our citizens, or using federal funding to help some of the poorest in our state with the Medicaid program as we explore other healthcare reforms … I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care."
"The Benedict Arnold to the patriot and tea party movement in Florida," is how state tea party leader Everett Wilkinson denounced Scott. Eventually, the Republican-controlled Legislature rejected the expansion, which included $51 billion in federal assistance over the next 10 years.
Few these days are placing any bets on whether Scott is re-elected or Crist moves back to the Governor's Mansion in November. About the only things one can say for certain about their contest is it will be costly and sure to be analyzed nationwide.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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