Donald Trump will be in Tampa on Tuesday to stump for a handful of GOP candidates.
Conspicuously absent, however, will be the most notable Florida Republican running in the midterms: Rick Scott, the state’s term-limited governor challenging Democrat Bill Nelson in a battleground race crucial to control of the U.S. Senate.
Scott appeared caught off-guard when Trump’s team announced the MAGA rally in a statement last week that cited Scott by name as someone advancing the president’s agenda (and identified Nelson by the wrong first name, Ben). Scott’s staff initially said his schedule was in flux and that they weren’t sure if he’d be able to join Trump at the campaign event, before later saying he would attend a fundraiser that evening instead. (Scott will still join Trump earlier in the day for a policy roundtable at a nearby high school, but that event will be closed to the public and, as an official White House event, doesn’t come with the air of an endorsement that a campaign rally provides.)
Skipping the primetime rally is the best example yet of Scott trying to distance himself from the man he helped get elected to the White House. But the rally also illustrates just how difficult that strategy will be to pull off for Scott, who was one of Trump’s early backers in the 2016 primary and later ran a pro-Trump super PAC. The president has taken a personal interest in two other races in Florida, endorsing Rep. Ron DeSantis for governor and Rep. Matt Gaetz for re-election, both of whom will join the president on stage.
DeSantis in particular could make life more difficult for Scott. A self-declared “pitbull Trump defender,” DeSantis is a regular on Fox News, where he frequently attacks the FBI and Robert Mueller on the president’s behalf. Anyone looking for evidence of just how much DeSantis loves Trump need only look at his latest campaign ad, which shows DeSantis teaching his young daughter to “build the wall” out of toy blocks and reading The Art of the Deal to his newborn son. If DeSantis wins the GOP nomination, as he is now favored to do, he’ll drag Scott and every other Florida Republican into each and every Trump-related controversy between the August primary and Election Day, whether they like it or not.
Scott, clearly, would not. He avoided mentioning the president at all during his official Senate campaign kick-off, and has brushed aside the suggestion that he is a “Donald Trump Republican.” Asked by Fox News this year if he wanted Trump to stump for him, Scott dodged. “What I tell people is, I’m running as Rick Scott,” he said then. More recently, Scott has broken with Trump—as well as his own previous hardline views—over the administration’s immigration policy, and earlier this year he signed new restrictions on gun purchases in his state following the Parkland school shooting, a surprise decision from a governor with an A-plus NRA rating who made no such effort after the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando.
Trump won Florida two years ago by less than 2 points, nowhere near his margin of victory in the other states seen as Senate GOP pick-up opportunities this fall, like West Virginia and Missouri, where the Republican candidates are embracing Trump with both arms. Without a primary challenger of his own, Scott would instead prefer his 2018 Senate campaign to be a rerun of his successful 2010 gubernatorial campaign, during which he focused relentlessly on jobs and the economy while presenting himself as an anti-Washington outsider. The latter is a tougher sell today, with Scott’s party controlling Washington. But Trump and DeSantis will likely do particular harm to Scott’s economic messaging. Staying focused on any one issue is near impossible in the age of Trump—unless, that is, the issue is Trump.
One more thing
If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus