Florida Gov. Rick Scott wanted voters to know two things on Monday: He is running for U.S. Senate, and he really doesn’t like Washington. “Washington is a disaster, it’s not functional,” the Republican said at the campaign kickoff for his run against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. “We can change Washington. We must change Washington. We will change Washington together.”
Scott had been hyping his “big announcement” since late last month, and those close to him were talking openly of his plans to run for Senate even before then. But what his entry lacked in suspense it made up for in significance: It ensures the Florida race will become one of the most expensive contests in the nation, and it gives the GOP a major boost as it tries to hold on to the Senate. It also offers a high-profile test case of just what it means to run against Washington as a Republican when Republicans control the White House, the House, and the Senate.
Scott, who will be term-limited out of the governor’s mansion at the end of the year, promised to unveil a lengthy set of policy proposals soon, but on Monday he focused on his call for federal term limits for Congress. “Washington is tired,” he said in his scripted remarks. “And the truth is, both political parties share some of the blame. They’ve tried a lot of things—it just didn’t work.”
Scott was an early backer of Donald Trump during the 2016 primary, and he went on to lead a pro-Trump super PAC during the general election. But Scott’s speech avoided any full-throated defense of the president, and he has taken pains to distance himself from Trump—and some of his own conservative positions—in recent months. Notably, Scott broke with Trump over his decision to end the Deferred Action Child Arrivals program that shields immigrants brought to the country illegally as children from deportation. And Scott also recently signed off on new restrictions on gun purchases in his state following the Parkland school shooting, an unexpected decision from a governor with an A-plus rating from the NRA and one who made no such effort after the Pulse shooting in Orlando in 2016.
Trump won Florida two year ago, but by nowhere near the margin he did in most of the other states seen as potential Senate pick-up opportunities for the GOP this fall. It’s no wonder, then, that the GOP’s top recruit in North Dakota, where Trump won by more than 35 percentage points, is promising to be a faithful vote for the president’s agenda, while Scott is promising to be his own man in a state that went for Trump by only a little more than one point.
Democrats will be eager to tie Trump to Scott and hope that the president will serve as an anchor on the Republican candidate, as he appears to have done in a trio of recent local races in the state. The president had publicly encouraged Scott to run and appears to have done him at least one big favor in the run-up to his official announcement. Politico recently reported on emails and other government records that show Scott and Trump’s teams worked together earlier this year to make it look like Scott convinced the White House to reverse a decision that would have expanded oil and gas drilling off the Florida coast when, in reality, Trump’s Interior Department had planned to back down from the beginning.
Like Trump, Scott won his first political campaign by running as a right-wing insurgent in 2010, promising to run government like a business. But portraying himself as the ultimate outsider won’t be as easy eight years later. He abandoned his promise to slash the state budget during his first term, and he has also moderated his previous hardline views on immigration. The GOP establishment was caught off guard by his success in 2010, but Trump and the Senate Republicans have made it clear they see him as a possible savior in 2018. And now that he has officially jumped in, Scott will reportedly travel to Washington to meet with Republican donors as he tries to amass a $100-million campaign war chest.
Scott also has a considerable personal fortune at his disposal, and he has the rare distinction of being a challenger with greater name recognition than the three-term incumbent.
Democrats need to pick up at least two seats this fall to take control of the upper chamber, but as it stands now, they only have three realistic opportunities to flip seats. At the same time, Democrats will need to defend seven competitive seats, and, with Scott running in Florida, five of those seven are now considered toss-ups. Some non-partisan handicappers, including Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report, see Scott as the GOP’s single best chance to flip a seat from blue to red. If he does, Democrats would then need to sweep all nine of the other Senate races currently thought to be in play in order to claim the Senate.
Scott can promise to shake up Washington but at some point he’ll have to explain how keeping Republicans in power isn’t just an extension of the status quo.