ORLANDO, Fla. – Beginning what is likely to be a costly, negative campaign, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday opened his challenge to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson by slamming “career politicians” and calling Washington, D.C., a “disaster.”
Clad in a blue, long-sleeved shirt and wearing his signature Navy baseball cap, Scott made his long-anticipated announcement at an Orlando construction company.
Scott, a two-term Republican governor, never mentioned Nelson, a three-term Democratic senator, by name. But he repeatedly criticized “career politicians” and said he would push for term limits for members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
“We have to all acknowledge that Washington is a disaster. It’s dysfunctional. There is a lot of old, tired thinking up there,” Scott said. “This concept of career politicians has got to stop. We have to have term limits on Congress.”
Nelson, 75, who is the only Florida Democrat holding statewide office, said he is ready to face Scott, 65.
"I’ve always run every race like there’s no tomorrow -- regardless of my opponent,” Nelson said in a statement. “While it’s clear that Rick Scott will say or do anything to get elected, I’ve always believed that if you just do the right thing, the politics will take care of itself."
Scott, a wealthy businessman from Naples who never held a political office before he was elected governor in 2010, struck an “outsider” theme Monday that was similar to his first gubernatorial campaign, when he ran against the Tallahassee “insiders.” Scott’s Senate announcement came on the eighth anniversary of starting his initial bid for governor.
Scott said his agenda as governor, which focused on job creation, lower taxes and fewer regulations, met resistance from the Tallahassee establishment.
“They (said) governor you just don’t fit into Tallahassee. You know, I think that’s true,” Scott said. “I never intended to fit into Tallahassee. And guess what? I’m not going to fit into Washington either.”
Scott also recounted Florida’s recovery from the recession under his leadership, pointing to job creation, tax cuts, a reduction in state debt and a record numbers in tourism.
“Now we’ve got to take that same mission to D.C.,” Scott said.
Scott also talked about his early life in a family that “struggled for money” and lived in public housing. He credited his late mother and the opportunities provided by living in the United States for his rise as a lawyer who founded the Columbia/HCA health conglomerate.
“It seems to be fashionable now to attack and badmouth this country. I’m sick of it,” Scott said. “There is no place like America. And we need to thank God every day for this country and our opportunity to be here.”
Scott made no mention of President Donald Trump, although Scott has been a consistent supporter of the president. He also did not mention the Republican majority that controls the U.S. House and Senate.
Scott, however, made several references to his “let’s get to work” slogan, which he has used since his first bid for governor in 2010.
“We must change Washington. We will change Washington. Together let’s get Washington to work,” he said.
When he ran in 2010, Scott initially was known for his public awkwardness, stumbling through speeches and insisting on a buffer between himself and crowds.
There was no evidence of that Scott on Monday, though. Scott confidently delivered a speech, warmly smiling at supporters who cheered him on, including state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, at least a dozen state lawmakers, Associated Industries of Florida President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Feeney and prominent insurance lobbyist Fred Karlinsky.
When the speech was finished, Scott’s wife, Ann, placed her hands on his waist, guiding him through the crowd, helping negotiate an exit and avoiding reporters.
Scott was introduced at the event at ODC Construction company by the lieutenant governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Rivera-Marin, who said the island would be “forever grateful” for Scott’s help in recovering from a series of damaging hurricanes.
Scott also made a few concluding remarks in Spanish.
The negative tone of the campaign is already well underway, with Republicans launching a nomorenelson.org website, which calls the incumbent a “career politician,” and the Democrats having a selfservingscott.com website, which criticizes the governor’s economic record.
Scott won his two gubernatorial campaigns in expensive, highly negative races where he edged out Democratic opponents. In 2010, he beat Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, capturing 48.9 percent of the vote to her 47.7 percent.
In 2014, Scott beat former Gov. Charlie Crist by a margin of 48.1 percent to 47.1 percent.
However, heading into the Senate race, Scott’s popularity numbers are his best since he emerged on the Florida political scene.
In a February poll from Quinnipiac University, Scott had a 49-40 percent approval rating from voters, the highest since Quinnipiac began tracking him in 2011. Nelson had a 48-34 percent approval rating in the same poll.
In recent years, Florida governors have had mixed success in making U.S. Senate bids.
Crist, a former Republican governor who is now a Democratic member of Congress, lost a 2010 Senate race while running as an independent. Gov. Bob Graham, a two-term Democratic incumbent, beat U.S. Sen. Paula Hawkins, a Republican, in the 1986 Senate race.
Four Scott opponents stood outside Monday’s event, with motorists occasionally tooting horns or giving thumbs up as they drove past.
“Our street poll is great,” said 40-year-old Wes Hodge of Winter Park.
A two-time cancer survivor whose Hodgkin lymphoma has been in remission for five years, Hodge held a sign that read “healthcare is not a luxury.”
“If not for the Affordable Care Act I would not have access to quality health care,” he said, adding, “we are not unaware that health care is hanging.”