Four years ago, on a rainy fall day in Florida, more than 500 activists gathered at a rally organized by the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party to hear a speech by a relatively unknown activist named Rick Scott. He’d flown out to the rally on his own dime and paid for his own room at the local Hampton Inn. He really wanted to be there, and the rally’s organizers knew it. To the tea-party activists, he was one of them. The Affordable Care Act was about to pass the House, and grassroots conservatives were mad enough to stand out in the rain to hear an anti-Obamacare activist explain what they could do to stop it. And Scott delivered. His vision for private health care was so compelling that, a year later, these same activists, and many like them, helped to elect him governor. Scott was the golden boy, the fighter. He was their hope.
Then things got complicated.
In February, Scott moved to accept federal funding for a Medicaid expansion. “This was not a tertiary issue,” says Henry Kelley, who helped organize that 2009 rally. Blocking the expansion was states’ last chance to resist the health-care law. And Scott didn’t take it. “This is what he campaigned on,” continues Kelley, explaining his bitter disappointment. “This is what he rose to fame on: opposing Obamacare.”
Everett Wilkinson, who helped start the South Florida Tea Party and campaigned for Scott, is not happy with the governor. Scott is a “Benedict Arnold,” he says. “I have a lot of members who say they won’t vote for him again. They say: What’s the difference if I vote for him or if I vote for Charlie Crist?”
Scott has felt the pain in the polls, though his poll numbers were low even before the Medicaid kerfuffle. In a Quinnipiac poll from March, only 32 percent of voters said he deserves a second term. And a Public Policy Polling survey from March gave him only a 33 percent approval rating. “Scott barely has the approval of his own party,” PPP wrote in its analysis. “Republicans approve of his job performance by a slim 46/42 margin.”
A Florida political insider says he suspects that Scott supported the Medicaid expansion because he assumed conservatives would support him regardless, due to his conservative positions on most issues, from taxes to guns. “I think it was a huge miscalculation on his part, because I think he really has hurt himself with his base,” the insider says.
Scott is not without supporters. A number of state senators, including Senate President Don Gaetz, are unflinching in their support of the governor. And Lenny Curry, the chairman of the Florida GOP, is also an outspoken defender. He praises Scott for paying off $2 billion of the state’s debt and overseeing the creation of 300,000 jobs in the state. “If you look at the totality of his record, he’s done exactly what he campaigned on,” Curry contends.
Keith Appell, a consultant and former senior adviser to Scott’s 2010 campaign, adds that the governor remains a popular figure in conservative circles, in spite of reports of tea-party unrest. “Rick Scott’s record of conservatism is second to none,” he says, citing Scott’s spending cuts, tax cuts, and elimination of teacher tenure. Scott’s pro-life record and Second Amendment support, he argues, will keep his conservative supporters behind him.
Scott proposed and signed off on a smorgasbord of tax cuts in the state’s 2011 budget. In his latest budget, he proposed the elimination of the tax on manufacturers. Those moves and others have drawn him props from some fiscal conservatives.
The first bill Scott signed as governor lets principals consider teachers’ merit as part of the evaluation process for pay raises. And he signed legislation requiring public employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay to their pensions. As a result, some teachers saw their take-home pay go down. The state’s largest teachers’ union sued to stop the pension reform, but the state supreme court upheld the change. The governor is currently lobbying for a $2,500 annual raise for all teachers, a push that doesn’t seem to be gaining serious traction in the Republican legislature.
Scott’s supporters argue that his fiscal track record will keep his base loyal. Others aren’t so sure. So how did the former tea-party darling become such a divisive figure?