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Rick Scott Needs to Be Wary of Republican Primary Challenge

April 29, 2013 - 6:00pm

Riding the tea party tide to the governors mansion in 2010, Rick Scott stressed private-sector job creation and getting the state governments fiscal house in order. Now, poised to sign the largest budget in Floridas history that provides across-the-board pay raises to teachers and state employees, Scott is leaving himself open to a primary challenge despite the unemployment rate dropping under his watch.

Scott won a bruising primary against Bill McCollum back in 2010 -- so bruising, in fact, that McCollum did not endorse his Republican rival in what turned out to be the closest gubernatorial election in Floridas history. The wounds from that primary still havent fully healed. A poll taken by Quinnipiac University last month showed that 28 percent of Republicans in Florida dont think Scott deserves a second term.

Even if 20 percent of Republicans abandon Scott in 2014, the governors re-election bid would be in serious jeopardy. Former Gov. Charlie Crist won several statewide general and primary elections as a Republican before abandoning the GOP in 2010 to run partyless for the U.S. Senate. Crist eventually joined the Democrats at the end of 2012 and is that partys front-runner to challenge Scott in 2014. Its certainly not inconceivable that Crist could win a quarter of the Republican vote against Scott.

The same Quinnipiac poll found Scott in less-than-ideal shape if he is challenged for the Republican nomination. When matched up against Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, Scott took less than a majority of Republicans -- only 47 percent -- while 24 percent said they would back Putnam.

A poll from Public Policy Polling (PPP), a Democratic polling firm, released in the middle of March, also showed Scott getting mediocre marks from Republicans. The PPP poll found only 42 percent of Republicans wanted Scott to carry their banner in 2014 while 43 percent preferred another candidate.

Scott garnered less than a majority of Republicans again -- 48 percent -- when matched up against Putnam, who took 24 percent, in the PPP poll. Scott did even worse against Pam Bondi, taking only 46 percent against the attorney general while she took 27 percent. Only against freshman U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho did a majority of Republicans -- 54 percent -- back Scott. But Yoho, a political newcomer who upset longtime Congressman Cliff Stearns in the primaries last year, is generally unknown outside his North Florida base.

In short, Scott is vulnerable in a primary, though he would start out as the favorite, especially with a sizable war chest, his own personal fortune to tap into, and the party machinery behind him. The fact that Putnam, Bondi, Yoho, former U.S. Rep. Allen West and other Republicans have shown no interest in challenging Scott only reinforces his status as the favorite for renomination.

But Scott has left his right flank open in recent months. He is preparing to sign the largest budget in state history that gives across-the-board pay raises to public school teachers and state government workers. He released a joint statement with Florida Education Association President Andy Ford this past weekend praising the Legislature for agreeing to teacher pay raises. Conservatives might be pardoned if they raise their eyebrows over Scott teaming up with a union boss who has opposed almost every education reform ever proposed in Florida. Scotts decision to accept federal dollars for the Medicaid expansion required by Barack Obamas health care law also left conservatives up in arms, so much so that they started calling for Putnam, who criticized the decision, to challenge Scott.

Recent primaries show Republicans can run to the right and win. In 2010, it worked for Scott against McCollum, Bondi against two candidates in the attorney general primary and Marco Rubio was able to squeeze Crist out of the GOP by running to his right. In 2012, the trend continued as Yoho, Trey Randel and Ron DeSantis won congressional races by stressing their conservative credentials.

Theres certainly room for a candidate to primary Scott from the right. The governor should win but, lagging behind potential Democratic opponents in the polls, he cant afford to get bogged down in a serious primary battle. History is full of examples of how a conservative primary challenger can doom a Republican incumbents bid for re-election.

While Republicans point to Ross Perot as being behind George H.W. Bushs political demise, they often forget that conservative commentator Pat Buchanan weakened that president in the primaries, almost winning the New Hampshire primary back in 1992. Already weakened by pardoning Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford had to tangle with a spirited challenge from Ronald Reagan in 1976. In Florida, Claude Kirks bid for a second term was seriously hampered by having to face drugstore mogul Jack Eckard and prominent legislator Skip Bafalis in a heated primary that eventually went down to a runoff between Kirk and Eckard. While Bush, Ford and Kirk won their partys nominations, they all went down to defeat in November.

Scott should, on paper, easily dispatch a primary challenger, especially as top-tier Florida Republicans avoid taking him on. But even a second-tier primary opponent can rough Scott up in the primary, making his bid for a second term, already tough to begin with, even more challenging.

Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News.

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