Just six months ago, Gov. Rick Scott stood onstage outside the state Capitol basking in his hard-fought victory as he began his second term.
Scott boldly proclaimed in his inaugural address that the campaign was over, and while there would be “robust debates on the best direction for Florida” that “we should not let partisan politics, or any politics for that matter, get in our way.”
But that’s not been the case for the Republican governor who has grown isolated from many other Republicans in the GOP-dominated Sunshine State.
He’s not actively helping the Republican Party of Florida, his recent budget vetoes angered already fragile relations with Senate Republicans, and he’s at odds with other statewide elected officials such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. There are questions about his relationship with Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera after Scott didn’t rely on the former legislator to help push his agenda in the Legislature this past spring.
The battle over the budget and Medicaid expansion — which resulted in a rare special session in June to reach a final deal — damaged the governor’s ability to win approval of his top priorities and his campaign promises. His poll numbers, which have been lackluster, are sinking again.
“How do you build a relationship when you really can’t understand where the other person is coming from?” said Sen. Don Gaetz, a top Republican. He said Scott called him constantly before the election, but he hasn’t heard from the governor in months. “The governor never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. There are so many opportunities to build a working relationship, and a working relationship is not built on agreement, it is built on understanding and respect.”
The strain comes as Republicans must draw a new map for congressional districts after the state Supreme Court ruled the existing map was gerrymandered. Plus, a GOP eager to take the White House in 2016 needs a strong Florida operation after twice losing to President Barack Obama.
Scott, who sticks to talking points when questioned by reporters, has brushed aside talk of increasing tensions. Instead, he ticks off a well-rehearsed list of achievements: Tax cuts; record education funding; a 24-year low in the crime rate.
Scott, a former hospital chain CEO with little previous political experience, was a tea party insurgent when he ran for governor in 2010, beating the Republican establishment candidate in the primary.
He had few ties to statewide Republicans, and his first term as governor started rough. But Republicans rallied to Scott’s side last year when he was challenged by former Gov. Charlie Crist, who had switched from the GOP to the Democrats. GOP legislative leaders pushed through most of the governor’s agenda, which was partly designed to contrast the taxes and spending of Crist, his immediate predecessor.
But the goodwill and unity dissipated quickly after Election Day.
Republican activists rejected Scott’s choice for Republican Party of Florida chairman in January. Scott has since distanced himself from the party and raised more than $2.2 million for his own political committee. He held an economic summit in June that attracted several presidential candidates, but the event did more to boost Scott’s image than help the party.
This year’s fight over the budget and health care found Scott siding with House Republicans against Senate leaders. The fight forced Scott to accept scaled-back versions of his tax cut and budget requests that fell short of his campaign promises. His decision to veto nearly $500 million from the budget — some of which targeted projects backed by senators — antagonized Senate Republicans even more.
Senate budget chairman Tom Lee said during the dragged out budget fight he stopped hearing from Scott.
“They lost my number,” Lee said.
During that fight, Scott didn’t tap his lieutenant governor to help navigate the schism, who had been an ally in the legislature previously. Lopez-Cantera has refused to comment, saying only that he has a great relationship with the governor.
Scott further alienated himself by refusing the agriculture commissioner’s request for a meeting, then vetoing a raise for state forest firefighters and other items sought by Putnam.
When it was pointed out that his vetoes angered some lawmakers, Scott replied: “I ran to represent 20 million people in Florida, and I’m going to continue to look after their livelihood, their taxes. I’m going to make sure that we spend their money well in this state.”