NAPLES, Fla.—In some political campaigns, the acrimony is so intense, so poisonous, that neither candidate's supporters can keep a straight face when talking about their opponent. The 2010 Republican primary for governor of Florida, between multimillionaire health care executive Rick Scott and state Attorney General Bill McCollum, is one of those campaigns.
"Rick Scott?" says Dennis Kulonda, an administrator at the Florida Institute of Technology in Orlando. He laughs out loud. It's a stage laugh, the kind you do for emphasis if you're in a Noel Coward play. "You want to know what's wrong with Rick Scott? How about how he's probably going to wind up in jail?"
Meanwhile, at a Scott rally in a Naples sports bar, real estate agent Thomas Ravana frowns at McCollum's name, calling him a "career politician" who's "never created a job in his life." And don't get him started on McCollum's supporters. "We're in the Costco parking lot the other day," says Ravana, as his partner, JoAnn DeBartolo, nods. "I've got a Rick Scott bumper sticker on the car. And this guy comes up behind me, and just starts screaming at me: 'You're voting for a felon! You're voting for a felon!' "
("That's false!" interjects DeBartolo, correctly. "He's never been convicted.")
"I'm not in the mood to start screaming at this guy," says Ravana. "I just tell him, 'You're wrong,' and he tells me, 'They're both crooks, but you're voting for a felon.' " As Ravana talks, a nearby TV plays one of McCollum's negative ads. "You know my conservative credentials, and his scandals," McCollum intones. "Weigh his personal greed against my record."
The easiest way to follow this campaign is to follow the TV ads that, in the final 72 hours before Election Day, are impossible to miss. The next easiest way to follow it is to track the constant sniping between Scott and McCollum partisans in newspapers and in blogs. What's harder to ascertain is just why Scott got into the race, and why the Republican Party, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and just about every interest group that matters is trying to stop Scott from seizing this nomination.
First, a quick backgrounder on Rick Scott. In 1987, he helped found the hospital corporation that eventually became Columbia/HCA. In 1993, he was one of many health care executives who opposed President Bill Clinton's push for health care reform. In 1997, he was one of many health care executives who saw their companies accused of Medicare fraud. (Supporters of Scott, without wanting to get too deeply into it, draw a bright red line between those last two events.) By a one-vote margin, the company agreed to oust Scott and pay $1.7 billion in settlements. It was, in a phrase made for a 30-second negative ad, the largest fraud settlement in American history.
Scott bounced back with startling speed. By 2009 he had become a successful venture capitalist with big investments in, once again, the health care industry. Just weeks after the inauguration of President Obama, Scott started an organization called Conservatives for Patients' Rights and began starring in a series of TV ads in which he looked straight into the camera and warned against the dangers of socialized medicine. One year and about $15 million of his own money later, the public option was dead—and Scott does not mind taking some of the credit.
"With the Tea Party, with 9-12 and other groups, we killed the public option," says Scott in a short Q&A with reporters in Naples. "We would have killed the whole thing if [Michigan Democratic Congressman] Bart Stupak's group had done what they said they were going to do and voted against the bill. It was a great experience. We really learned a lot."
That experience prepared Scott for politics. It gave him, it seemed, a chance to rebut and dismiss the old story about Columbia/HCA, as well as credibility as a conservative who worked himself ragged to stop "Obamacare." The key word is seemed. Since entering this race and spending close to $40 million, Scott has been brought low again—possibly low enough to lose to McCollum—by the same attacks the Democrats used against him in 2009. Except now they're coming from Republicans and Tea Party activists.
The attacks started in May, as soon as it was clear that Scott could beat McCollum. The attorney general's campaign, which had been pushing the Columbia/HCA story to no avail, stepped up use of the word fraud to attack Scott. TV ads retold the tale that Democrats told to wreck Scott's credibility as a health care reform spokesman. And they damaged his credibility as a Republican candidate.
"I didn't really know who he was before he started running," says Anne Whitt, a community college teacher in Orlando. "Oh, he has so many problems! He's running on his business background, you know, and using all this money on ads—well, where did he get that money?"
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."