Naples millionaire businessman Rick Scott has surged into a double-digit lead over Attorney General Bill McCollum in their race for the Republican nomination for governor, a poll released Thursday shows.
The Quinnipiac (Conn.) University poll has Scott, a 57-year-old Illinois native who has lived in Florida since 2003, with a 13-point lead over McCollum, a career politician whose campaign has struggled despite recent television ads featuring former Gov. Jeb Bush on his behalf.
Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said Scott’s jump in the polls is proof that “neophytes” with big campaign funds can be serious contenders against career politicians.
“(Scott) is a perfect example of that trend. Outside of metropolitan Naples you could probably count the number of people who knew who Rick Scott was before this on your hand,” Brown said. “He wasn’t known. Now he’s a hit.”
Scott was favored with 44 percent to McCollum’s 31 percent in a poll of 814 likely Republican voters conducted June 2-8. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points and is a snapshot of voter preferences at the time they are polled.
Another poll of Florida voters released Wednesday by Rasmussen suggests that Scott would have a better chance of winning in the general election than McCollum. The poll shows Scott would win against Alex Sink, the potential democratic nominee for governor, 50 percent to her 45 percent. McCollum would also best Sink, but by a smaller margin, 40 percent to 38 percent.
Scott, a former chief executive officer of the for-profit hospital chain Columbia/HCA, told The Associated Press on Thursday that moving ahead in the polls will only further motivate him to stay on a message that apparently has resonated with Republican voters.
“My job is to continue to talk about what I believe in and let people know what I believe in so when they elect me they know what they have as their governor,” Scott said. “Our goal is to make sure I have enough money and raise enough money to make sure our message gets out.”
In a statement Ryan Duffy, a spokesperson for McCollum’s campaign, said the “skyrocketing” poll numbers are no surprise given Scott’s multi-million dollar campaign budget.
“It is inconceivable real conservatives in Florida would nominate someone who let his company steal hundreds of millions from taxpayers and defraud seniors. His lead will evaporate when Floridians learn Rick Scott oversaw the most massive Medicare fraud scheme in American history,” Duffy said.
Scott was the CEO at Colombia/HCA when the corporation was being investigated by the federal government for Medicare fraud in 1997. Scott resigned from the company that same year. By 2003, the Colombia/HCA reached two settlements with the federal government that totaled $1.7 billion and made it the largest fraud case in United States at that time.
Scott was never charged with any crime or investigated.
After leaving Colombia/HCA, Scott began an investment firm and eventually co-founded a chain of walk-in medical clinics that featured prices for different treatments listed like a menu at a fast-food restaurant.
Scott has now rocketed to prominence from political anonymity in just two months as a result of a massive buy of television advertising to introduce himself to voters. He would not put a number on his personal contributions, but estimates are well north of $10 million.
One of Scott’s television ads has already responded to charges from political opponents that blame him for his role in the Colombia/HCA Medicare fraud case.
“When you’re CEO of a company, you have to take responsibility for mistakes that were made on your watch,” Scott conceded in an interview last month.
In other ads Scott supports the Arizona law cracking down on illegal immigrants and is a critic of President Barack Obama’s health care plan.
Although the commercials have received criticism from his opponent, Scott’s willingness to spend part of his personal fortune on saturation-advertising seems to be paying off.
“What this shows is the power of television advertising and the weakness of Bill McCollum as a statewide candidate,” said Rick Fogelsong, professor of politics at Rollins College in Winter Park. “Bill McCollum appears to lack the magnetism to attract much popular support despite the fact that he’s someone very well versed in public policies. He doesn’t seem to sell himself well to voters.”
Brown said he is confident of the accuracy of Quinnipiac poll but it’s only a snapshot of what voters think at the moment. Six out of ten of the voters polled said they could change their minds by the primary election day Aug. 24.
“In politics ten weeks is a lifetime,” he said. “Polls can only tell what the situation is when they are taken, not what will happen in the future.”
Daily News correspondent Maryann Batlle contributed to this report.