GOP Sen. Rick Scott Is Uniquely Unpopular in Florida. Can Dems Capitalize?

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

It’s no secret that Florida Democrats hate Sen. Rick Scott. What’s less known is that many Republicans feel the same way.

To his detractors, Scott is a big-money, anti-abortion villain trying to sunset Social Security and topple the old guard GOP. But as Democrats try to mount a Senate campaign against Scott this year, both Republicans and Democrats are about to find out whether candidate quality matters anymore in a state that was once considered the swingiest in the nation.

It very well might not.

During Scott’s eight years as Florida governor and five years in the Senate, he’s cultivated a reputation as a staunch conservative who has trouble making friends on Capitol Hill—an advocate for the rich and an enemy of the poor. Basically, he’s the perfect Republican boogeyman for Democrats to bash on the campaign trail.

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Influential Florida Democratic donor John Morgan—founder of the Morgan & Morgan law firm—put his assessment of Scott bluntly.

“He looks bad. He looks like an alien that has just landed here with ET. He’s not a prototypical candidate. He’s very awkward,” Morgan said.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Morgan couldn’t stop insulting Scott—almost making a sport out of dissing him.

“Rick Scott is the most wounded bird of all the birds,” he said at one point.

Other Democrats, in Florida and nationally, sense Scott’s weakness. On top of his key policy vulnerabilities, polling signals he’s downright unpopular. A November 2023 survey from right-leaning polling firm Cygnal showed only 35 percent of Floridians have a favorable view of Scott—less than both Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Scott is up for re-election this cycle, and Democrats think they have a candidate who could surprise election prognosticators. They’ve recruited former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL), a one-term member who narrowly defeated former Republican Rep. Carlos Curbello in a Miami-adjacent district in 2018, and then narrowly lost to current Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez in 2020.

While Mucarsel-Powell lacks the name ID and the electoral experience of Scott, she doesn’t have Scott’s baggage.

A Latina immigrant from Ecuador with a background in education, health care, and gun safety, strategists argue Mucarsel-Powell is an ideal conduit for Democrats to make their 2024 case.

And the Democratic message is simple: No one likes this guy.

In an interview with The Daily Beast last week, his Democratic opponent argued Republicans like Scott are agents of chaos in Congress with extreme and dangerous platforms.

“That’s exactly why I’m running and why great people need to step up and run so that we can bring back some sanity, some unity, get rid of the chaos and the dysfunction of Washington,” Mucarsel-Powell said.

“Rick Scott has been part of that dysfunction,” she told The Daily Beast.

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But there’s a problem for Mucarsel-Powell. As Florida turns increasingly red, she has to convince the big-money and small-dollar donors that her election is winnable. And in a presidential year when President Joe Biden and Democrats may barely invest in trying to flip Florida, Mucarsel-Powell may largely be on her own.

To get the financial help she needs, she has to show donors she has a chance; to have a chance, she has to get the financial help she needs. It’s a classic campaign catch-22—and at the moment, Mucarsel-Powell hasn’t apparently shown donors enough.

Morgan, for example, told The Daily Beast his involvement in the Florida Senate race will be “zero.” He doesn’t have plans—at least at this point—to donate to Mucarsel-Powell.

“I might write a check, but I don’t see myself raising big money. I would have to see a lot more as we get closer,” Morgan told The Daily Beast. “I never say never. I like her a lot.”

“We’ll see if she can raise the money,” he added, noting he would also be taking cues from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Senate Democrats face a grueling election battlefield in 2024. They’re defending vulnerable seats in Pennsylvania, Montana, Nevanda, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Electing a Democrat in Arizona will also be a challenge, as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) is still not saying if she’s running for re-election. And Democrats have all but thrown in the towel on maintaining a seat in West Virginia now that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has bowed out.

Then there’s the political reality of Florida. Democrats haven’t clinched a Senate, gubernatorial, or presidential race in Florida since President Barack Obama won in 2012. Scott is a well-known incumbent who served two terms as governor before winning his Senate seat in 2018. He’s also spectacularly wealthy. Scott spent a whopping $64 million of his own money during his 2018 Senate race.

As skeptical donors see it, every dollar spent on booting Scott from the Senate is a dollar that Democrats aren’t spending on other competitions. With such a high opportunity cost, persuading donors that they should pay attention to a former one-term congresswoman taking on the rich and powerful Scott may be an insurmountable task.

Morgan said he’s spending his money elsewhere. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Jon Tester (D-MT) have better odds, he thinks, of defending their seats this cycle.

“At the end of the day, this is a casino game. We’re all walking into a casino,” Morgan said. “You can go over and play roulette and lose, but your best chance of winning is blackjack. And so I’m going to pick out the game that statistically has the best chance of winning.”

Still, Mucarsel-Powell and optimistic Democrats aren’t going down without a fight. This cycle, they insist, is the best chance to turn a Florida Senate seat blue in decades.

“Florida is not a red state. This is a purple state,” Mucarsel-Powell said.

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“Everyone across the state, as I travel and I talk about this race, they know exactly who Rick Scott is,” she continued. “They don’t trust him. They know that Rick Scott is a fraud. They are so ready to retire him and send someone that’s going to work for them in the U.S. Senate.”

Mucarsel-Powell jumped into the race in August, dispelling chatter that no high-profile Democrat was willing to take on Scott. Since then, she’s blasted Scott for his record.

To start, she’s hitting Scott for his hardline stances on abortion. Scott said if he were still governor, he would have enshrined a six-week abortion ban. He has also signaled openness to “reasonable” federal abortion restrictions.

The Democratic message on abortion after the fall of Roe v. Wade has invigorated voters around the country, and Florida Democrats are hoping a Florida ballot measure to expand abortion access rallies Democratic voters to turn out in November.

The very first line in Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign launch video was a shot at Scott and his abortion stance: “He would strip away women’s rights with a national abortion ban.” (Scott has since disputed that claim.)

The economy and inflation are also polling as top issues in Florida, and Mucarsel-Powell herself called the housing affordability crisis “the biggest issue.” She blamed a 2011 property insurance policy that Scott signed into law as the culprit of the crisis.

And then there’s Scott’s infamous 12-point plan to “Rescue America.” The unpopular proposal touched the well-understood third rail of politics—targeting Social Security and Medicare and drawing the ire of Republicans ranging from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to Donald Trump. (The backlash to Scott’s plan to cut the two government programs was so swift and severe that he excised that portion of the policy.)

Although Republicans are attacking Democrats for inflation under Biden, Mucarsel-Powell hopes running against the guy who wrote the plan on sunsetting Social Security and Medicare will give her an edge—particularly in Florida.

“When you're the richest member of the Senate in Washington, D.C., you have no idea, absolutely no idea, totally out of touch with what it means to have to live on a fixed income when you’re a senior on social security,” she told The Daily Beast.

Mucarsel-Powell also knows that, if she’s going to pull off her upset win, she’ll have to make inroads with members of Florida’s Hispanic community, who have increasingly voted for GOP candidates. In 2022, DeSantis won 58 percent of the Latino vote, per an NBC News exit poll, propelling him to a 20-point victory over former Gov. Charlie Crist in a bad year for Republicans, and there’s little pathway statewide for a Democrat who loses the Latino vote.

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But again, Mucarsel-Powell thinks she can turn that tide. She hails from a Hispanic area of the state, and she’s the first Spanish-speaking Democratic Senate candidate in Florida. She’s emphasized doing Spanish-language media interviews and hosting events in Spanish, according to her campaign.

That’s important in Hispanic communities—especially those populated by immigrants from countries with a history of socialism—where leftist messages aren’t cutting it, according to veteran Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale.

“Frankly, the stuff from the left in my party about kind of playing footsie with socialism and suggesting we defund the police and all that stuff had a real impact,” Schale said.

“We've got to change that narrative,” he added.

Like Democrats nationally, Mucarsel-Powell is also trying to flip the script on immigration. Senate Republicans—including Scott—recently tanked a bipartisan border security deal that included significant immigration restriction concessions from Democrats.

“He’s been the poster child of blocking any sort of progress for the border bill, for example. He refused to even take a look at that bill, which would have at least brought some funding and support for border patrol at the border,” Mucarsel-Powell told The Daily Beast.

“I mean, these people have made public service a show and we cannot continue to be the laughingstock because—believe me—the international community is watching,” she continued.

All of these factors are giving Mucarsel-Powell and Democrats hope. A poll for Senate Democrats shows Scott’s favorable ratings trailing Rubio’s at the same moment in his 2022, and Scott has never won a statewide election by more than roughly a percentage point.

But Scott’s campaign appears unphased by the challenge. Campaign spokesperson Chris Hartline wasn’t shy about Scott’s chances. “Rick Scott has never lost an election and will win re-election in November,” he said.

“If Democrats were serious about competing in Florida, they wouldn't have put all their eggs in the basket of a one-term Congresswoman who was rejected by the voters of her home county and a state party that’s defending its title as the most incompetent political organization in the country,” Hartline told The Daily Beast.

Hartline added that he’s looking forward to a Biden/Mucarsel-Powell ticket explaining gas and grocery prices, an open border, and how “chaos around the world” are good for them.

“I'll bring the popcorn,” he said.

Republicans are also blasting Mucarsel-Powell as a weak recruit with sketchy ties to a Ukrainian oligarch, which was first reported in 2018 by The Daily Beast. Mucarsel-Powell denies those ties as “nothing but slanderous lies.”

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Still, if the GOP is supposed to be scared of Mucarsel-Powell, they didn’t seem to get the memo. The National Republican Senatorial Committee called her a “washed up former one-term Congresswoman.”

“Rick Scott is fully prepared to take on out-of-state liberals pouring millions into Florida to prop up Debbie Mucarsel-Powell’s flailing campaign,” NRSC spokesperson Philip Letsou said.

The GOP is also pointing to a surge in Republican voter registrations in Florida as evidence that they are in good shape, though Democrats counter that the larger increase in unaffiliated voter registrations is actually a plus in their column.

“The fact is that voter registration in Florida is growing first and foremost, with no-party-affiliation voters, people who are up for grabs, and those voters trend overwhelmingly people of color, women and young people,” Democratic strategist and former Florida operative Joshua Karp told The Daily Beast.

“Those are exactly the voters who we need to win this election,” he said.

Additionally, Democrats are banking on a boost in turnout among younger and more diverse voters for the 2024 presidential race.

But despite all those factors, the big challenge for Mucarsel-Powell in this race remains money.

She raised over $2 million last quarter compared to Scott’s $4.7 million—though $3 million of Scott’s total came from his personal bank account. That’s another huge, related problem for Mucarsel-Powell: Scott will likely spend as much as he has to in order to remain the favorite. The GOP senator’s fortune from his days as a health-care executive has left him in a position to entirely self-fund his race, if needed.

(Notably, Scott was ousted as the chief executive of hospital chain Columbia/HCA for a Medicare fraud scheme that resulted in a $1.7 billion fine from the Department of Justice. That’s something Democrats will also keep bringing up.)

“Most campaigns just kind of deal with whatever the weather is. Very few campaigns can actually change the weather. They've got the ability to write checks to really do that sort of change the atmospherics of the race,” Schale said of the Scott campaign.

But Mucarsel-Powell’s camp told The Daily Beast she will rise to the challenge—even going so far as to say the question for them isn’t if they can raise enough money, but how to use funds wisely.

“We’re confident that we’re going to be able to raise the resources that we need here,” a spokesperson for Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign told The Daily Beast. “I think the bigger question is whether or not resources translate into infrastructure on the ground.”

So far the Democrat-controlled Senate Majority PAC has not invested in Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign. However, PAC spokesperson Hannah Menchhoff called the race a “key offensive opportunity in 2024” and Mucarsel-Powell “a strong candidate with a story that resonates with voters and is exactly the kind of Democrat who can be successful in Florida.”

Senate Democrats official campaign arm has been involved in the race. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has invested in staff on the ground and run digital ads attacking Scott on Medicare and Social Security.

“Democrats will look for every opportunity to put Republicans on defense, including in Florida,” said DSCC spokesperson Maeve Coyle.

As Mucarsel-Powell tries to do that by reminding voters of Scott’s long, conservative backstory in Florida, she’s banking on his unpopularity becoming a key metric of the race.

“They know who Rick Scott is,” Mucarsel-Powell said of voters. “They want to send him packing, and they want to support me in this race. And I think that’s the difference this cycle.”

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