The Tea Party Governor Everybody Loves to Hate
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The Fiscal Times
July 20, 2011

Since Gov. Rick Scott took office in January, Florida’s unemployment rate has fallen from 11.9 percent to 10.6 percent while nationally unemployment has gone up. The state’s $3.8 billion gap in the fiscal 2012 budget has been closed. And Scott claims credit for creating about 77,000 private-sector jobs.

“I ran on a very specific campaign—seven steps to 700,000 jobs—and we did all of those things or are doing all of those things,” Scott told The Fiscal Times in an exclusive interview. “My job is to make sure our state gets back to work, make sure this is the state that’s most likely to succeed, and is the most efficient. And we’re heading in that direction.”

But Florida voters—even Republicans—aren’t warming to Scott. In fact, his 29 percent approval rating earns him the title of least popular governor in the U.S. The poll numbers have ignited some panic within the state GOP, which is apparently worried that Scott’s unpopularity could influence voters in the 2012 presidential election. The Florida Republican Party spent about $500,000 between April 1 and June 30 on polling, direct mail, online ads, and automated phone calls to mend Scott’s public image, though it’s unclear if the effort is working.

But fears that the governor will be a liability may be overblown.“People aren’t going to go to the polls in Florida saying ‘Gee, I can’t decide whether to vote for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, but I really don’t like Romney because he’s a Republican and Scott is a Republican,’” says political strategist and pollster Stu Rothenberg. He calls that notion “nuts” and labels Scott’s impact “microscopically small” in the most extreme scenario. “I can’t imagine Republicans are exactly knocking on Rick Scott’s door asking to have their photos taken with him, but the outcome of the Presidential race in Florida and nationally is not going to rest on him—not at all,” Rothenberg says.

Why is Scott as unpopular as a rainy day in Florida, even within the Republican Establishment? The answer offers a cautionary tale about the limitations and pitfalls of political neophytes unexpectedly catapulted into high office with the help of the Tea Party. Scott is part of the bumper crop of fiscally conservative Republican governors who have touched off a seismic shakeup of state government by forcing deep budget cuts, downsizing the public workforce, and overhauling pension and health insurance programs.

Among the biggest GOP stars: Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who weathered weeks of angry protests at the state capital to push through his agenda; Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who recently closed a major budget deficit and won plaudits from both parties; and the combative Gov. Chris Christie  of New Jersey, who has attracted considerable national attention by slashing spending and butting heads with public employee unions.

While Christie has reveled in his newly found notoriety and popularity within the Republican Party, others, including Walker and Scott, have traveled a much bumpier road. Walker’s proposal to eliminate collective bargaining for most state employees brought thousands of demonstrators to Madison, prompted a walkout of Democratic senators, and inflamed voters. Recall elections are pending for nine state senators, six Republicans and three Democrats. Republicans could lose their Senate majority as a result, and Walker may face a recall next year. Walker told The Washington Post that if he had it to do over, he wishes he had laid the foundation for the changes more effectively.

Scott has also triggered turmoil. In less than six months, his unorthodox and seemingly tone-deaf political style has alienated much of the Florida political Establishment, while his tight-fisted fiscal policies and close ties to the corporate world have enraged middle-class taxpayers and advocates for the poor.

The former health insurance executive burnished his conservative bona fides by rejecting $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail funding , saying it would have forced the state to spend too much in matching funds. But many local officials and business leaders thought it was a big mistake to pass up so much money that could have helped bolster the economy. Scott also spurned a $1 billion federal grant to help the state implement the Obama administration’s new health care law, saying he would wait for further court rulings on the law’s constitutionality.