Commentary Magazine


Topic: Florida governor’s race

The GOP and Scott’s Immigration Flip

When Rick Scott successfully ran for governor of Florida in 2010 beating Democrat Alex Sink, he called for a crackdown on illegal immigration. He endorsed Arizona’s controversial law calling for law enforcement authorities to check the immigration status of those who were arrested, blamed illegals for taking jobs away from Floridians, and said they should be sent back where they came from. But, due in no small part to support from the Cuban-American community, he wound up winning a whopping 50 percent of the Hispanic vote according to exit polls that year.

Despite calls from other Republicans who interpreted their 2012 defeat in the presidential election as a sign they needed to start thinking differently about immigration, he has generally stuck to that hard line, even vetoing a bill passed by the GOP-controlled legislature that would have allowed the children of illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. But apparently Scott, who trails his predecessor Charlie Crist in all the polls, may be thinking that now would be a good time to reach out to Hispanics who regard immigration as a litmus test.

As Fox News Latino reports:

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who urged a crackdown on immigration four years ago, is throwing his support behind a bill that would allow qualified Florida students to pay in-state college tuition rates even if they are in the country illegally. But Scott is supporting the idea as long as it is combined with his own proposal to place limits on how much state universities can raise tuition each year.

It’s not entirely clear what Scott is up to, but this has the feel of an election-year conversion that is more likely to anger right-wing opponents of immigration than it will entice Hispanic voters to vote for him. If so and if Scott winds up losing to the former Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Crist, then it is likely that conservatives will blame it on the governor’s lack of principles rather than on faulty policies. But Scott’s fate is not the only matter at stake in this debate. Though Florida’s electorate has a different makeup than other states with large Hispanic populations, the governor’s flip-flop may be a sign that even those who benefitted from rabble-rousing anti-immigrant stands in the past are starting to realize that the negative fallout from that position may be greater than the benefits.

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When Rick Scott successfully ran for governor of Florida in 2010 beating Democrat Alex Sink, he called for a crackdown on illegal immigration. He endorsed Arizona’s controversial law calling for law enforcement authorities to check the immigration status of those who were arrested, blamed illegals for taking jobs away from Floridians, and said they should be sent back where they came from. But, due in no small part to support from the Cuban-American community, he wound up winning a whopping 50 percent of the Hispanic vote according to exit polls that year.

Despite calls from other Republicans who interpreted their 2012 defeat in the presidential election as a sign they needed to start thinking differently about immigration, he has generally stuck to that hard line, even vetoing a bill passed by the GOP-controlled legislature that would have allowed the children of illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. But apparently Scott, who trails his predecessor Charlie Crist in all the polls, may be thinking that now would be a good time to reach out to Hispanics who regard immigration as a litmus test.

As Fox News Latino reports:

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who urged a crackdown on immigration four years ago, is throwing his support behind a bill that would allow qualified Florida students to pay in-state college tuition rates even if they are in the country illegally. But Scott is supporting the idea as long as it is combined with his own proposal to place limits on how much state universities can raise tuition each year.

It’s not entirely clear what Scott is up to, but this has the feel of an election-year conversion that is more likely to anger right-wing opponents of immigration than it will entice Hispanic voters to vote for him. If so and if Scott winds up losing to the former Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Crist, then it is likely that conservatives will blame it on the governor’s lack of principles rather than on faulty policies. But Scott’s fate is not the only matter at stake in this debate. Though Florida’s electorate has a different makeup than other states with large Hispanic populations, the governor’s flip-flop may be a sign that even those who benefitted from rabble-rousing anti-immigrant stands in the past are starting to realize that the negative fallout from that position may be greater than the benefits.

Given the desire of conservatives to turn out to send a message to Washington against President Obama and especially ObamaCare, perhaps it’s smart politics for Scott to risk a backlash from conservatives. But his decision to break down and start mending fences with those who want a softer approach to illegal immigration has an air of desperation about it. The governor has had a rocky term in Tallahassee and is easily among the most vulnerable GOP incumbents in 2014. Even taking into account the fact that the large Cuban-American demographic in Florida is more Republican than any other group of Hispanics, his standing among Hispanic voters has dropped since his 2010 win. Though he remains within striking distance of Crist and can count on a midterm environment that looks to be very friendly to Republicans (as the vote in the special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District showed on Tuesday), Scott remains an underdog heading toward November.

Nevertheless, Scott’s abandonment of the anti-immigration crowd this year may be a signal that some Republicans are starting to understand that bashing illegals may not be quite as potent a talking point as it was only four years ago. It was one thing for Scott to urge that the 800,000 illegals in Florida be deported when he was running for office. But that sort of empty threat rings hollow from someone sitting in the governor’s chair. Support for DREAM Act-type measures such as those involving in-state tuition rates are growing, making those holding the line against them look mean-spirited and out of touch with reality. That’s why GOP majorities in the legislature have backed such stands.

Moreover, if Republicans are going to be able to build winning coalitions in the future, they’re going to need Hispanic votes. In Florida, that once meant just taking a strong stand against the Communist regime in Havana. But even Cuban-Americans may now require more than a casual swipe at Castro in order to gain their support.

If Scott is defeated this year, it’s likely that it won’t be due primarily to his position(s) on immigration. But by doing an about-face on the issue in the middle of a tough reelection race, he has certainly given other Republicans food for thought about how best to build a majority in an era when Hispanic votes are up for grabs.

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Can Crist Hold Lead as ObamaCare Loyalist?

On a national electoral map that has a lot of bright spots for Republicans, Florida is a problem. As Marc Caputo wrote yesterday in the Miami Herald, Governor Rick Scott’s polling numbers are enough to turn the stomachs of the GOP party faithful in the Sunshine State. Even polls conducted by Republicans all show Scott trailing renegade Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in his attempt to win re-election. Crist leads Scott in Republican strongholds in the state and can count on landslide-type advantages in areas where Democrats predominate. If those patterns hold, that’s a formula for certain defeat for the Republican.

It is true that there’s still plenty of time for Scott to recover and he has the kind of personal wealth that can finance a formidable counter-attack in the coming months. But his problem is that Crist, who preceded Scott as governor when he was a fellow Republican, is viewed favorably by the public while the controversial incumbent is not. That’s why Scott may view Crist’s decision to link himself inextricably with President Obama as providing his only path to victory. Crist went on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday and played the loyal Democrat in an awkward interview that had to make members of his current party wince. Crist denied that hundreds of thousands of Floridians had lost their insurance coverage as a result of the president’s signature health care law and even stuck to that implausible position even when Candy Crowley told him “that’s a fact.”

That exchange raises the prospect that the Florida governor’s race may provide an interesting test case as to whether the national GOP theme of running against ObamaCare in the midterms can salvage the party’s otherwise gloomy prospects in Florida. As we’ve seen in past midterms the vastly different electorate in non-presidential years can turn easy wins for the party of the incumbent president into nail biters, especially when a race can be nationalized. While there’s good reason to believe that Scott’s unpopularity makes such a scenario extremely unlikely in Florida, embracing the president and his unpopular and misnamed Affordable Care Act may be a case of Crist unnecessarily tempting fate.

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On a national electoral map that has a lot of bright spots for Republicans, Florida is a problem. As Marc Caputo wrote yesterday in the Miami Herald, Governor Rick Scott’s polling numbers are enough to turn the stomachs of the GOP party faithful in the Sunshine State. Even polls conducted by Republicans all show Scott trailing renegade Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in his attempt to win re-election. Crist leads Scott in Republican strongholds in the state and can count on landslide-type advantages in areas where Democrats predominate. If those patterns hold, that’s a formula for certain defeat for the Republican.

It is true that there’s still plenty of time for Scott to recover and he has the kind of personal wealth that can finance a formidable counter-attack in the coming months. But his problem is that Crist, who preceded Scott as governor when he was a fellow Republican, is viewed favorably by the public while the controversial incumbent is not. That’s why Scott may view Crist’s decision to link himself inextricably with President Obama as providing his only path to victory. Crist went on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday and played the loyal Democrat in an awkward interview that had to make members of his current party wince. Crist denied that hundreds of thousands of Floridians had lost their insurance coverage as a result of the president’s signature health care law and even stuck to that implausible position even when Candy Crowley told him “that’s a fact.”

That exchange raises the prospect that the Florida governor’s race may provide an interesting test case as to whether the national GOP theme of running against ObamaCare in the midterms can salvage the party’s otherwise gloomy prospects in Florida. As we’ve seen in past midterms the vastly different electorate in non-presidential years can turn easy wins for the party of the incumbent president into nail biters, especially when a race can be nationalized. While there’s good reason to believe that Scott’s unpopularity makes such a scenario extremely unlikely in Florida, embracing the president and his unpopular and misnamed Affordable Care Act may be a case of Crist unnecessarily tempting fate.

Crist’s decision to play the die-hard Democrat/Obama enthusiast is presumed to be smart politics. Democrats know that his decision to abandon the GOP had little to do with principle and everything to do with opportunism. He left the Republicans because they preferred to nominate Marco Rubio for the U.S. Senate seat the former governor coveted in 2010. Crist needs to convince rank-and-file Democrats who voted against him when he was a Republican and then an independent to turn out in November rather than to sit out the governor’s race. But while liberals may find his turncoat act distasteful, they tend to be more pragmatic about such things than the conservative base. Unlike the conservative base that places a higher value on ideological purity (as establishment Republicans who have been unseated by implausible Tea Party candidates could testify), liberal Democrats generally prefer winning elections. 

The irony here is that while being rejected by conservatives somehow enhanced Crist’s popularity, he seems to think that his future rests on transforming his political persona to that of a Democrat who is determined to march in lockstep with the leader of his party even on his most unpopular and least successful initiatives. Given the widespread dissatisfaction with Scott, Crist would probably do better trying to run this year as a moderate independent running on a Democrat line rather than to do a complete makeover as a true Blue Obama acolyte. But his comments about ObamaCare show that Crist’s opportunism may be getting the best of him.

Crist’s lead may be strong enough to withstand his decision to double down on ObamaCare and perhaps his loyalty to his new leader may induce Democrats to turn out in the numbers he needs to retire Scott. It’s also possible that Scott’s unpopularity rather than any national issue will determine the outcome of the race. But Crist’s ObamaCare comments won’t go unnoticed and will be used against him by the GOP. Florida may have gone for Obama in the last two elections and its changing demography may, like other purple states, may be making it a more friendly state for Democrats. But Crist’s over-the-top and blatantly insincere embrace of the president could give Republicans the chance to hold onto a governor’s seat that might otherwise be a lost cause.

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