FORT LAUDERDALE —
Forget the polls that showed his early lead slipping away.
Forget the critics within his own party who said he didn’t know what he was doing.
On Tuesday night, Naples businessman Rick Scott, 57, shocked Florida and the country when he handily defeated Bill McCollum, the state’s attorney general, in the race for the Republican nomination for governor.
The Associated Press called the election for Scott just before 11 p.m., seconds after McCollum spoke to his supporters, refusing to throw in the towel.
Scott will face Democratic nominee Alex Sink, and independent Lawton “Bud” Chiles in the general election on Nov. 2.
Scott beamed as he took the stage at an election party at a Hilton in Fort Lauderdale. He hugged his wife, Ann, his mother, Esther Scott, and two daughters before speaking to about 200 roaring supporters, introducing himself as “that handsome bald guy.”
“The people of Florida have spoken, and I like what they said,” Scott said to cheers of “Let’s get to work. Let’s get to work,” his campaign slogan.
“I Gotta Feeling,” by the Black Eyed Peas, with its refrain of “Tonight’s the night,” blasted over the loud speakers prior to Scott taking the stage. Confetti flew at the conclusion of Scott’s speech at 11:30 p.m.
By 11 p.m., Scott held a 47 percent to 43 percent lead over McCollum. But the McCollum campaign hadn’t conceded as votes continued to be counted in South Florida and in Orange County (Orlando), which appeared to be leaning his way.
Scott won about 58 percent of the votes in Collier, his home county, and 55 percent in Duval County, where Scott’s walk-in clinic company, Solantic Inc. is based.
At a 10:45 p.m. speech to his supporters, McCollum wasn’t ready to admit defeat.
“This is going to go until the wee hours of the morning,” McCollum said just before 11 p.m.
However, McCollum did concede that the results weren’t going his way. He was down by 40,000 votes when he spoke to his supporters.
Scott’s victory could prove to be tough to swallow for Florida’s Republican establishment, which had supported McCollum wholeheartedly throughout the campaign. Scott rode to victory a wave of discontent with establishment politicians that has taken out mainstream Republicans across the country.
But Scott predicted that the Republican Party would unite behind him.
“The Republican Party will come together,” Scott said, “and the reason we will come together is our shared devotion to the values that make America great.”
The only boos of the night came when Scott mentioned President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, all Democrats, who he said were destroying the American dream.
“We’re not going to let that happen in Florida,” Scott insisted.
Karen Bowling, 55, the chief executive officer of Solantic Inc., the Jacksonville-based walk-in clinic company Scott co-founded, said that when it comes to Scott, “what you see is what you get.”
“What you hear him talking about, he will make happen,” Bowling said.
McCollum, whose 30-year career in Florida politics proved to be a decided disadvantage, appeared to be a shoo-in for the nomination until April, when Scott entered the election.
Underdog state Sen. Paula Dockery’s campaign went nowhere, and she was out of the race by May. The only other Republican in the race Tuesday was Mike McCalister, a little-known and poorly funded retired military man and college professor from Plant City. He received 10 percent of the vote.
Starting in early May, Scott began blanketing the state with television and radio advertising in an effort to build name recognition and get his conservative, outsider message out. By early June, polls showed him with a hefty lead over McCollum.
After months of negative, dog-eat-dog back and forth between the two camps, McCollum appeared to be making headway. The most recent Mason-Dixon poll showed him pulling ahead of Scott by nine points.
But it was not to be.
Around 8 p.m., early election results started pouring into the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina where Scott was hosting an election night party with about 200 supporters. Those early results showed Scott with a 6-point lead over McCollum, buoying the spirits of Scott’s supporters in the room.
Toney Sleiman, a Jacksonville businessman, stood alone in front of a big screen television in the front of the room watching the results come in on cable television. The rest of the crowd mingled in the back of the room.
“I’m so fired up,” Sleiman said. “I don’t want to be standing over there because I don’t want to get people too crazy. Look how calm all the people are. I’m not that calm.”
Scott endured an intensely negative campaign, during which his business ethics and abilities were questioned. In the mid-1990s the federal government launched an investigation into Columbia/HCA, the hospital giant Scott founded, in what became the largest health-care fraud in U.S. History. Columbia/HCA paid a record $1.7 billion in fines, and Scott resigned amid pressure from the company’s board of directors.
Judy and John Williams of Naples said they supported Scott because they said he seemed honest.
“We’re expecting a victory,” said John Williams, 74., around 8 p.m.
“He said he expects it, and that’s good. I’m really hoping for (a victory),” said Judy Williams, 58.
Dr. Malcolm Dorman, a heart surgeon from Palm Beach who has known Scott since the 1980s, said Scott didn’t deserve the criticism he received about his role in the $1.7 billion Medicare fraud that occurred at the company.
“Being the CEO, I think he took responsibility,” Dorman said. “But when you suddenly grow to 300 hospitals in a few years, it’s very difficult ... to look over every detail initially.”
“I was very upset to hear the things they were saying about him because of the fact that’s not who he is at all,” Dorman said.
Around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Scott made an appearance at St. Ann Catholic Church on Third Street South to cast a vote for himself.
“It’s exciting,” Scott said. “I’ve never done this before.”
2010 ELECTIONS - PRIMARY ELECTION COVERAGE
- Results: Collier County
- Results: Lee County
- EXIT POLLS: Exit poll results in Collier, GOP governor races
- VIDEO: Hiller wins primary for commission
- VIDEO: Coyle will keep his commission seat
- PHOTOS: Rick Scott beats McCollum
- PHOTOS: Kendrick Meek beats Doug Greene in Democratic U.S. Senate Primary
- PHOTOS: Fred Coyle defeats Lavigne Kirkpatrick
- PHOTOS: District 4 Commission race: Kirkpatrick loses to Coyle
- PHOTOS: Brian Bigelow leads Lee County District 2 commissioner's seat
- PHOTOS: Runoff for Collier School Board District 1
- PHOTOS: Rosanne Winter 2010
- PHOTOS: Georgia Hiller leads district two race
- PHOTOS: Rick Scott casts vote in Naples
- PHOTOS: Florida Elections
- STORY: One judicial race too close to call, Mann a clear winner in other
- STORY: PHOTOS: Rick Scott defeats Bill McCollum in Florida GOP governor primary
- STORY: David Rivera, Joe Garcia will face off in November election for Collier’s House District 25
- STORY: Coyle, Hiller win seats on Collier County Commission
- STORY: State Senate District 27 race: Benacquisto, Merchant locked in tight race
- STORY: Nuñez and Ruiz to face off in Florida House District 112
- STORY: Steven Teuber, Elinor Scricca out as new faces take majority on Lee School Board
- STORY: Incumbent Brian Bigelow wins Lee County Commissioner for District 2
- STORY: Alex Sink wins Democratic nomination for governor in Florida
- STORY: Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio wins Republican nomination for Senate in Florida
- STORY: Meek wins Fla. Democratic Senate nomination
- STORY: VIDEO/PHOTOS: Georgia Hiller wins Republican nomination for Collier commission
- STORY: Coyle beats Kirkpatrick for reelection to Collier commission
- STORY: Florida governor election: Rick Scott holds steady lead over Bill McCollum
- STORY: Collier School Board: Six candidates head to November runoff for three seats
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