The Tea Party Governor Everybody Loves to Hate
Policy + Politics

The Tea Party Governor Everybody Loves to Hate

Getty Images

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.

The $69.1 billion budget Scott signed into law in May cut the state’s education budget by 10 percent, lowering public payrolls by about 3 ½ percent, reducing public employee retiree cost-of-living increases, and requiring that public employees contribute 3 percent of their salaries toward pension plans. In March, he ushered through sweeping legislation eliminating tenure for new teachers and linking teachers’ contracts and salaries to students’ test scores. He has purged state agencies of 1,100 government regulations and is working to phase out the states’ 5.5 percent corporate income tax in order to attract business investment. In June he signed into law a package of changes to Florida's water management districts that he says will amount to a $210.5 million property tax cut for homeowners and businesses in 2012.

That prodigious record has earned him few friends, especially among public employees who feel under siege by the governor’s office. Even fiscally conservative groups that largely agree with Scott’s policies are turning against him, complaining that he has consistently plays to the Tea Party while ignoring them and going over the heads of the state GOP.

“He’s going ahead and making cuts, but not even soliciting the help of friendly groups, or communicating his reasoning for doing it well to Floridians. That is, and will continue to haunt him,” said Apryl Marie Fogel, a conservative grassroots activist and former Florida director for Americans for Prosperity, a fiscally conservative national group.

But despite his low approval rating, he has no regrets about how he has instituted change. “This is not a popularity contest,” Scott replied. “I told everybody when I got elected exactly what my plan was….to build the private sector. I am following and implementing it, and it’s working.”

Scott was the co-founder and CEO of private hospital operator Columbia/HCA from 1987 to 1997, when he was forced to resign after the company was found guilty of committing the largest Medicare fraud in U.S. history and compensating doctors for referring patients to the company. Though Scott is a multimillionaire, he had humble beginnings in Kansas, where his earliest jobs were cleaning telephone booths, frying food, working in gas stations, and delivering newspapers.

Scott used nearly $75 million of his wealth to finance his gubernatorial campaign and beat former House member and state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the GOP primary. (That put a dent in his bank account but his net worth was $103 million at the end of 2010.)Then he squeaked through the general election by defeating his Democratic opponent, former state chief financial officer Alex Sink, 49 percent to 48 percent—the closest election in modern Florida history. “He needs to remember he didn’t get elected with a mandate like many Republicans were that night,”  says Mike Fasano, a Republican state senator who has publicly butted heads with Scott. “Then he went ahead, ran the government like a business, didn’t work to build any kind of a consensus, and unveiled his budget 200 miles outside of the capital at a Tea Party event, leaving others who wanted to be involved in the lurch.”

In light of the animosity he has generated during the early months of his administration, can he hold on to office and make his long-term policies stick? Or is he likely to be a one-termer, whose Tea Party initiatives are a transitory development?

“I keep highlighting the fact that I’m going to make this the most fiscally conservative state in the country,” Scott said proudly. But by not enlisting the backing of a wider swath of Republicans beyond the Tea Party, his seat could be in jeopardy come 2014, and that dream could be short-lived.

Related Links:
President Obama’s Secret Weapon in Florida: Rick Scott (POLITICO) 
For Rick Scott, a Tough Road to Reform (Sunshine State News) 
ATale of Two Governors: Florida’s Rick Scott and Texas’ Rick Perry (St. Petersburg Times)