Scott political shifts may be an election issue


Published: Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 8:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 8:31 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Name a Republican governor whose critics say he reverses his position to win votes, governs by polls, and makes his party uncomfortable by cozying up to teachers and embracing an expensive policy put forth by President Barack Obama.

Here's a hint: He also says he wants to be governor for all the people.

The answer could be Gov. Charlie Crist circa 2010. It also could be the Gov. Rick Scott today.

The Scott now seeking re-election is not the same Scott who won office in 2010 during a conservative wave by embracing the tea party. While he hasn't switched political allegiances as Crist did, Scott is no longer conducting official business at tea party rallies. But the more he moves toward the middle, the more he'll lose ammunition against Crist in a potential matchup next year.

"Rick Scott has been putting on his best Charlie Crist imitation," said David Beattie, a Democratic pollster. " ... That's a high compliment. He's so afraid of Charlie Crist that he's emulating him."

Since Crist decided to run for Senate as an independent in 2010, the Republican Party of Florida has blasted him as a flip-flopping opportunist who bases policy on popularity over principle. The GOP criticized him for trying to endear himself to the state's teachers union when he vetoed a merit pay bill. The party also accused him of taking contradictory positions for and against President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

The criticism escalated last summer as it become obvious Crist was becoming a Democrat and speculation increased that he would try to return to the governor's office with his new party. The GOP ran a television ad against Crist, an unusual move while voters' attention was on the presidential election 7/8— and Crist still isn't a declared candidate.

Even before Crist's political transition, many in the GOP grumbled and said it benefited Obama when he extended early voting hours in the 2008 presidential election. And Crist was widely criticized by party leaders for appearing with Obama at a 2009 rally in support of the $787 billion federal stimulus. The argument the GOP makes now is that Democrats shouldn't listen to the new Crist because the old Crist declared himself a conservative.

Crist often explained new positions as doing what's best for the people, and he has accepted the populist tag given to him.

As for Scott, he announced his first budget proposal the month he took office in a rural central Florida church during a tea party rally. The decision alienated Democrats.

Later that first year, Scott signed the teacher merit pay bill that Crist vetoed and cut education funding by more than $1 billion. Scott also signed a bill that cut early voting hours, and last fall, as people complained of long lines, he refused calls to extend early voting hours.

But then Obama carried the state, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson won re-election in a rout, and Scott's polling numbers remained low. Scott started moving toward the center — much to the consternation of his tea party allies.

First, he declared that the state needs to extend early voting. He then started pushing for an across-the-board $2,500 raise for teachers. Republican legislative leaders are tepid about the proposal, but it's a position Scott can campaign on when he potentially faces Crist, who is popular with teachers.

Scott's most stunning decision is his support of expanding Medicaid under Obama's health care overhaul. Scott spent millions of his own money to fight the overhaul before he was elected and called for its repeal many times since taking office. Committees in both the House and Senate have rejected the plan, but Scott could still say he tried.

"He's got a wet finger in the air, and he's figured out what sells with people," Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said. "It's also an example to me of these Democratic values that work and the policies that work, and he's jumping on them. He wants to win."

And while Crist has often been accused of using polls to make up his mind on policy decisions, Scott also is known for relying on his pollster, Tony Fabrizio, for guidance. The Republican Party of Florida has paid Fabrizio $573,745 since Scott took office two years ago.

Scott supporters, though, see it a different way.

"He hasn't really switched a whole lot of positions," said Brian Burgess, a Republican strategist who previously served as spokesman for Scott and later the state GOP.

Burgess said Scott has consistently championed education and the school budget cuts his first year were forced by the hole created when federal stimulus money ran out. On early voting, Burgess said Scott signed a bill the Legislature gave him, but he never took a position on it before receiving it. Now he wants the problems that have played out fixed.

"His core values haven't changed," Burgess said. "I don't think you can say the same thing about Charlie Crist. Charlie Crist is on a completely different level than Rick Scott when it comes to making political adjustments."

But critics say Scott sounded very Crist-like when he explained his thinking on Medicaid expansion.

"I worry about all 19.2 million people who live in this state. Rich or poor," Scott recently told a GOP women's group in explaining why he took the position that upset many Republicans. "I care about everybody. That's how my mom brought me up."

His explanation came two months after Crist, who called himself "the people's governor," told CNN that the GOP's stance on several issues "was counter to my values that my mother and father raised me on."

Regardless of who wins the Democratic primary to challenge Scott, Tant said her party will make a political issue out of Scott's changing positions, and Beattie believes that will dilute the Republicans' attacks on Crist, should he run and win the nomination.

"If it's about personality, that's a race Charlie Crist will beat Rick Scott on every time," Beattie said. "If the matchup is who's a flip-flopper, it's a wash; if the matchup is who has core values, it's a wash."

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top