GOP's Senate campaign chief won't back down from party fight

Florida Sen. Rick Scott is barely halfway through his first term, but he's already leaning into a fight against his own party’s leadership

Via AP news wire
Wednesday 30 March 2022 05:15 BST

Rick Scott likes to think of himself as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War.

Barely halfway through his first Senate term, the Florida Republican is already leaning into a fight against his own party's leadership as he navigates a delicate alliance with former President Donald Trump and pushes a handcrafted policy agenda that many Republicans reject.

But Scott, who is also the Senate GOP's midterm chief, insists he has only begun to fight.

The 69-year-old former businessman likens his situation to that of Grant during the battle of Vicksburg, when the general ordered multiple bloody assaults on the Southern stronghold before delivering a victory that helped turn the war in the Union's favor.

“I think of myself more like Grant taking Vicksburg, and I think as a result of that, I’m always going to be perceived as an outsider,” Scott said in an interview. “I’m going to keep doing what I believe in whether everybody agrees with me or not."

For now, what Scott believes is directly at odds with the wishes of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

Scott is refusing to abandon an 11-point governing plan he released with little input from party leadership, even after McConnell's public rebuke one month ago. In the weeks since, Scott has continued to promote his plan, which would raise taxes on millions of Americans who don't earn enough to pay federal income taxes, in dozens of speeches and media appearances.

Those close to Scott suggest he understands the modern Republican Party better than McConnell and his establishment allies. And as tension lingers, Scott is leaving open the possibility of challenging McConnell for Senate majority leader should Republicans retake the Senate majority this fall, although the prospects of him waging a successful effort are slim. Most who know Scott well believe he's more likely to seek the presidency in 2024.

McConnell's office declined to comment.

The story of Scott's unlikely rise from a little-known Florida businessman with a stiff demeanor to a two-term governor to a senator willing to buck his own party's leadership offers a fresh reminder that the conventional rules governing national politics no longer exist. Few outside Mar-a-Lago believe Scott could knock McConnell from his leadership post and Scott is an afterthought in early 2024 presidential chatter, which is dominated by his successor as governor, Ron DeSantis.

But allies suggest it would be a mistake to dismiss him as a serious political player.

Political consultant Curt Anderson, who has advised Scott for more than a decade, described the senator's interest in McConnell's job as “pretty low," although Trump has privately encouraged Scott to challenge the Senate Republican leader. When asked about a potential presidential run, however, Anderson said only, “We’ll see what opportunities lay ahead."

Not only has Scott won every race he's run, often as the underdog, he is the richest member of Congress with a net worth that exceeded $232 million before his last election. He has also expanded his donor network considerably over the last year in his role as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Lest anyone question Scott's willingness to dip into his personal fortune to further his political ambitions, he spent more than $63 million of his own money to win Florida's 2018 Senate election.

And his political footprint is growing.

As chairman of the Senate GOP's campaign arm, Scott is responsible for his party's quest to retake the Senate majority. He is tasked with leading the Republican Senate strategy, including how best to dispatch tens of millions of dollars to key races across the country.

That's even as Republican Senate candidates privately worry that Scott's policy agenda is giving Democrats a powerful talking point to use against them this fall. Several GOP campaigns have gone around Scott's committee to share their concerns directly with McConnell's team, although Scott has resisted pressure to back off.

Still, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel described Scott as “the ultimate team player” who works “hand in glove” with the party's other major campaign committees.

But McDaniel's praise ended when the conversation turned to his governing agenda and the provision that would raise taxes.

“I'm not a policymaker,” McDaniel said when asked directly whether she supports Scott's plan. She noted that House Republicans are working on another policy rollout. "I know that our voters are really focused on what are our plans if we govern. But we have to win to do anything.”

Republicans in Washington are divided over whether they even need a governing agenda.

The Republican Party declined to adopt a platform at Trump's 2020 presidential nominating convention. And many Republican strategists believe the GOP can win the House and Senate majority this fall without providing specific policy goals given Democratic President Joe Biden’s weak political standing and traditional political headwinds against the party in power.

When asked earlier in the year what the GOP’s agenda would be if it took control of Congress, McConnell told reporters, “That is a very good question and I’ll let you know when we take it back.”

McConnell is not used to being challenged. He has been elected Senate Republican leader by acclamation without so much as a token challenger since 2007. He has already publicly declared his intention to retain his leadership role after the midterm elections, and his team does not expect anyone to oppose him.

But as Trump calls for McConnell's ouster from afar, Scott and House Republican leaders are challenging the Senate leader's wisdom.

House Republicans worked on their own “Commitment to America” agenda last week at their annual retreat in Jacksonville, Florida. During the three-day gathering, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was asked about the decision to introduce an agenda when McConnell has held off.

“I think elections are important. But I think it’s more than important than just running against another party to tell the American public what you will do,” McCarthy told reporters.

More than most Senate Republicans, Scott has worked to develop relationships with leading House conservatives, including Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks, R-Ind. Scott regularly sends handwritten thank-you notes following private meetings and has an “impressive personal touch” that does not necessarily match his stiff exterior, Banks said.

Banks described Scott's agenda as “a courageous plan” that gives the party “a good framework to follow.” Like other leading Republicans, however, he stopped short of endorsing Scott's tax provision.

“I don’t know that I support it or don't support it. I don’t know the specifics," Banks said. “But even Sen. Scott has admitted that this is his draft, his attempt to put a framework around the GOP agenda. He deserves credit for that.”

Scott’s plan to “Rescue America” features 11 broad policy goals, most of which are focused on the conservative movement’s cultural priorities.

He would require children in public school to stand for the national anthem; block the federal government from asking people to disclose their race, ethnicity, skin color or gender preference; finish Trump’s proposed border wall; and ban “biological males” from competing in women’s sports.

Critics have latched onto more specific provisions regarding taxes and federal legislation.

Scott calls for a minimum federal tax on tens of millions of Americans who don’t make enough money to pay federal income taxes. Another provision would sunset all federal legislation five years after passage, which critics contend would jeopardize Social Security and Medicare, although Scott has said that is not his intention.

Indiana Sen. Mike Braun acknowledged that some in the Senate GOP caucus grumbled about the plan, but he said he remains confident in Scott's political leadership and even defended the 11-point plan.

In a brief interview, Braun insisted Republicans were still in a strong political position heading into the November midterms because Democrats’ mistakes have “served up a platter of opportunity.”

“I say take advantage of that, but also stake a little ground out that gives independents who elect swing-state senators and the president something other than the party of 'No,'" Braun said.

Beyond dividing his caucus on Capitol Hill, Scott's plan has also divided some of Washington's most powerful conservative institutions.

Grover Norquist, president of the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, dismissed Scott’s plan as “an unserious presentation” that would create “a significant tax increase.”

Norquist complained that Scott released his proposal without checking with the broader conservative movement. “This was not run past anybody,” he said. “Not happening.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation, praised Scott's agenda, including the tax piece. Scott is set to highlight his proposal during a Thursday speech at the foundation, which also plans to release its own set of policy goals.

The fierce resistance to Scott's plan, Roberts said, underscores a broader debate within the GOP.

“This is not an honest conversation about taxation policy,” Roberts said. “It’s about the establishment self-appointed ruling elites — I mean that generally — inside and outside the Capitol telling a great member of the Senate who’s working on behalf of his constituents that he just needs to stop talking about this because it’s not the plan they’ve decided.”

And as Republicans fight each other, the Democratic National Committee has used Scott's plan as a weapon against the GOP since the day he released it.

The DNC released a second round of digital ads last week that calls on voters to “stop Senate Republicans' new plan to raise taxes on 50% of Americans.” The ads feature black-and-white pictures of Trump, McConnell and Scott.

"Rick Scott literally put it in writing,” DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison told The Associated Press. “Every Republican lawmaker must answer for it, and you can bet we’re going to remind the American people of it every chance we get.”

Meanwhile, those who have watched Scott's political rise up close believe he is only beginning to put his stamp on national politics.

Ex-Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, who unsuccessfully ran against Scott in the 2010 Republican primary for governor, said he wouldn't underestimate Scott's potential to become the next Senate majority leader or the next president.

“I think he’s been ambitious to be president of the United States. He always has been," McCollum said. “His real ambition was to get to Washington, always. That’s his real ambition. His real ambition is to be chief executive office of the country.”


Associated Press writers Brian Slodysko in Washington and Farnoush Amiri in Jacksonville, Florida, contributed to this report.

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