Last Friday’s debate between Florida’s GOP Governor Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist didn’t have any zingers or gaffes that might change the course of the campaign. With polls showing a close race, both candidates seemed to opt for safety, sticking to familiar talking points and well-rehearsed attack lines.
Rick Scott attacked Charlie Crist as a runaway governor who oversaw an economic debacle in his single term. In several of his answers, whether responding to questions about Medicare expansion or preventing child abuse, he had a tendency to home in on one number: 832,000.
“Charlie should be known as the zero-wage governor,” Scott said in response to a question about raising the minimum wage. “832,000 people had a job the day he took office. The day he left office, they made zero wages.”
But Crist was ready for the attack. He noted that the losses had taken place during a global economic meltdown that no governor of Florida would be responsible for — just as Florida’s recent job gains had occurred during a national recovery Rick Scott couldn’t take credit for, either.
Scott also hit Crist hard on Obamacare — but again, Crist was ready. After Scott noted Crist had called the health care law “great,” Crist didn’t shy away, instead offering explicit support for the law in the form of vowing to expand Medicaid.
“Absolutely, I’m in favor of it, Jackie,” he told one of the debate’s moderators. “I think we need to have it, I would try to do it by executive order, or with a special session with the legislature.”
That’s the reply of a Democrat who knows something that failed Florida gubernatorial nominees like Alex Sink missed: To have a hope in a midterm election, you have to give your base something to vote for, not just against. When Alex Sink said she “didn’t necessarily embrace Obamacare,” she set herself up for the worst of both worlds: a demoralized party combined with a GOP base whose anger against the health care law and desire to vote against it never seems to diminish. Charlie Crist, who has spent an unusual amount of time in South Florida, even for a Democrat, is determined to gin up enthusiasm among Democrats this year, and isn’t repeating Sink’s mistake.
A Republican-Turned-Democrat Faces Rick Scott 2.0
Most observers of the debate probably went in curious to see how smoothly Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor, debated as a Democrat.
But viewers looking for differences in style may have noticed even more in the incumbent governor, who showed a lot more polish and ease in front of the camera than he’s been known for.
After four years on the job, Governor Scott has clearly become a better public speaker and debater. Two years ago the famed Florida political journalist Adam Smith noted that, despite plenty of coaching, the Florida governor still showed all of the warmth of an automaton on the campaign trail. But that’s gotten better as Scott deftly took advantage of several questions in order to tell stories that humanized himself to viewers.
On the question of the ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana this fall, he cited his family history to argue against it. “I grew up in a family with a lot of alcoholism, and I watched family members struggle with drug abuse. I don’t want any family to go through what my family’s gone through with regard to drug abuse.” On the question of raising the minimum wage, he cited all of the low-paying odd jobs he’d had in his life, before saying that what he was really focused on was creating jobs that pay two or three times the minimum wage. Politically, it was great gift wrapping for an unpopular answer.
But even if Scott had finally mastered the art of diffusing political tensions, Charlie Crist wasn’t about to play along — and he had a devastating response to Scott’s critique of his tenure.
“I’ve never had my integrity challenged in my entire career — not by anybody — except this gentleman to my left,” Crist said. “And it’s sad, but I know why it’s happening. It’s because of his past. Because he’s the one who ran a company and was the CEO of a company, HCA Columbia, that had to pay the largest fine for Medicare fraud in the history of the United States of America, and during the federal criminal investigation into that fraud, had to plead the Fifth Amendment 75 times to not answer questions from those attorneys. I’ve never plead the Fifth in my life.”
Scott replied by saying that the experience showed a crucial difference between him and Crist; that when a company he led did something wrong, he took responsibility for it. But that response seemed clumsy and ill-advised. Does a candidate who has just been called out on a debate stage for pleading the Fifth Amendment 75 times really want to highlight the importance of taking responsibility for things?
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects defendants against unfair treatment in the legal process by giving them numerous rights including the right to refrain from self-incrimination. It’s an important amendment that has prevented many a government overreach, but like all protections it has a trade-off. Thanks to the amendment, some guilty defendants have walked free along with the innocent ones. At least one award-winning journalist who covered the scandal has suggested Rick Scott belongs in the former category, and speculated that Scott would be in jail, even today, if he had been found personally guilty of all the felonies his company admitted to.
A Turning Point in the Race?
Rick Scott had good reason to go on the attack in this debate. After months of leading the race by a point or two in surveys, four polls released in just the last week have shown him trailing.
The latest poll to be added to the mix, conduced by the University of North Florida, showed Crist leading by a five-point margin, just outside of the 4.7 percent margin of error. It comes on the heels of a Crist fundraising event with Hillary Clinton that added $1 million to the candidate’s coffers.
These developments have been enough to cause some anguish this week in Scott’s reelection headquarters – and prompt pundits to declare that Crist may be the favorite in the race.
It all seems to make the memo released by Crist operative Steve Schale, which was taken as campaign spin, seem prophetic instead. Schale noted that after tens of millions of dollars in attack ads directed at him, Crist was still standing, and poised to put the election away. Scott, meanwhile, was still stuck at 42 percent.
Sure enough, that was the number that the UNF poll put the Governor at later in the week.
What’s so troubling about this trend for Scott is that it indicates he may have hit a ceiling in his support. Unpopular since the early days of his administration, he always looked vulnerable going into reelection. But the theory went that he could tear down his opponent with his heavy financial advantage, even dipping into tens of millions of dollars of his own wealth if he had to.
But the attacks against Crist, which whittled away what had been a 10-point lead for the Democrat, seem to be yielding diminishing returns. Rick Scott is still trapped in the low forties, while his predecessor retains some goodwill with the electorate. Another blitz of negative advertising is unlikely to change that.
It all hearkens back to the 2009 observation made by Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association:“While campaign money may be the mother’s milk of politics, it still can’t make an ugly baby pretty.”
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.