Scott's campaign would prefer that people ask where McCollum gets his money. The attorney general, who is mounting his fourth bid for statewide office in 10 years, has relied on a network of donors to raise a respectable war chest. But when he started falling short, he turned on the spigots. In the early summer anti-Scott ads started appearing courtesy of the Florida First Initiative, which had been set up by conservative state legislators to help elect more Republicans down the ballot. They took on a new mission: Save McCollum. The Chamber of Commerce started swinging for McCollum, as did the state GOP, as did, well, taxpayers, because McCollum accepted matching funds on the grounds that "I've got an opponent now who's a multi-multimillionaire."
Even the Tea Party is split between the two candidates. Scott and McCollum courted the movement's busiest activists, inviting them to events and spreading the gospel of why the other guy is rotten. McCollum scored the biggest coup when Everett Wilkinson, founder of the South Florida Tea Party, showed up at a Scott rally screaming about the fraud issue. Video of Wilkinson showed up in TV ads the next day, at the same time that Scott-backing Tea Party activists were bouncing Wilkinson from their Google group for his affront.
Scott may yet win today. He's gone from leading in all polls to leading in only some of them. Still, that he is in such jeopardy begs the question: Why has a man who helped kill the most expensive and popular part of the Democrats' health care plan been so vulnerable to attacks on his business record? Why would so many Republicans side with a "career politician"—a pejorative that appears not just in Scott's anti-McCollum ads, but in basically every negative ad in every race here—over the man who killed the public option?
There are two plausible reasons. The first is that "Medicare fraud" is a nuclear-strength political phrase and has been for decades. Republicans promise to get rid of it by making the system more efficient. Democrats promise to end it by reforming the system itself. The spine-chill that comes with that phrase has been more powerful than Scott or anyone else imagined, more powerful than the "special interests" phrase that was supposed to doom McCollum. The second reason is that the Republican Party remains strong and has been energized. It is no longer falling down and letting Tea Party candidates co-opt its nominations.
"It surprised me," Scott says glumly to reporters at his Naples rally, "that the Republican Party has been so biased against a conservative outsider who supports the Republican Party."
The mood among his supporters is angry but not despondent. Scott can still fire them up and promise victory, and do it without mentioning his opponent by name. "Think about what you're electing," says Scott, pacing around the small sports bar with a microphone. "You're electing character."
As he talks, another McCollum ad plays on a nearby TV, and it ends with a gut punch. "Rick Scott," it says. "A failure of character."