TAMPA — When he entered the governor's race suddenly in April, Rick Scott introduced himself to Florida voters in endless TV commercials as a "conservative outsider."
The wealthy Naples businessman told supporters on primary election night that in Tallahassee "the dealmakers are crying in their cocktails" in response to his stunning victory. He'd just spent about $50 million of his own money winning the Republican nomination, and said if he's elected governor he won't owe any political favors.
Now, with less than a month to go before the general election, Scott has gotten more than chummy with many of the same GOP "insiders" and special interests he railed against — and who raised millions of dollars to defeat him in the primary. They are helping each other refill their coffers and putting their newly found mutual admiration on display at campaign events.
Many of these Republican insiders were critical of Scott because of his link to a massive Medicare fraud scandal at the hospital corporation he founded — but they aren't talking about that anymore.
For his running mate, Scott chose Jennifer Carroll, a three-term state representative who twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress and once directed a state agency. (Scott classifies her a fellow "outsider" because she is a black woman Republican legislator, a rarity in Florida.) His campaign co-chairs included former Gov. Bob Martinez, former state party chief Tom Slade, U.S. Sen. George Lemieux and a host of GOP members of Congress and state lawmakers. Most of them supported his primary opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum — who, incidentally, has withheld his endorsement. He says he has concerns about Scott's character.
Scott smiled and shook hands recently at a glitzy $500,000 campaign fundraiser in Sarasota put on by a group of influential Republican politicians and donors. Lately he's appeared at fundraisers hosted by big sugar companies and the business lobby Associated Industries of Florida.
He's been endorsed by the politically powerful Florida Chamber of Commerce, which alone spent millions trying to defeat him in the primary. He got the nod over his Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, a former banking executive who once sat on the chamber's board of directors.
Scott, for his part, doesn't see the contradiction. He sees those in the Republican establishment scrambling to align themselves with their independent-thinking nominee, rather than him compromising his outsider status by seeking their support.
"From day one, they knew my agenda," Scott said. "I have a specific plan. They are coming on board and joining my plan. They believe I'm the individual who's going to get the state going again....I'll work with anybody who believes in my plan and helps me implement it."
Slade, who did not publicly support either candidate in the primary, said Republican leaders were left in a difficult spot when Scott came from nowhere to beat McCollum, their anointed candidate. It made sense afterward for them to quickly get behind Scott, who shares their philosophy.
Scott won the nomination with no help from the GOP establishment, Slade said, and he doesn't think Scott will hesitate to step on their toes if he is elected, regardless of the support he's getting now. And he'll likely remember which Republicans threw rocks at him during the bitter primary campaign.
Slade said that when outsiders win a primary, they then have to get the party behind them if they are to have a chance in the general election. That doesn't mean Scott will become an insider, too, if elected, Slade said.
"What he does not have to do is to apologize to these people (in the party) for his conduct when he starts cutting out their favorite stuff in government," he said.
Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff has a different take: "Over the past several weeks, it's become painfully clear that Rick Scott is part of the corrupt Republican establishment, the same corrupt Republican establishment that is taking our state down the wrong path."
Dan Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who studies campaigns, said Scott runs the risk of alienating voters who supported him in the primary against McCollum, a career politician, because they liked Scott's antiestablishment message and tea party credibility.
"Rick Scott railed against Tallahassee, and now all of Tallahassee is with him," Smith said, referring to GOP leadership in the state capital. "Is it politics as usual, is it hypocrisy or is that synonymous?
"It may have the effect of some people becoming completely disillusioned with the Republican Party and with Rick Scott," Smith said, "But I think there is enough anger toward Democrats that many of these folks will still back Rick Scott who backed him in the primary."
Republican state Sen. Alex Villalobos, who has endorsed Sink, suggested others in his party were hypocritical for supporting Scott now after saying during the primary that he was tainted by the fraud at Columbia/HCA, the hospital corporation he ran in the 1990s. Scott was forced out by his board before the company paid a record $1.7 billion to settle criminal charges. Scott was never charged.
"It looks bad for people to make such serious allegations one day and then two days later turn around and say it didn't matter," Villalobos said. "You lose credibility."
Deborah Cox Roush, vice chairwoman of the Republican Party of Florida, stood with McCollum in the primary. But she said that during the campaign she also got to know and respect Scott and his ideas.
"Rick still is an outsider," insisted Cox Roush, also the party's leader in Hillsborough County. "He is not a career politician. He's going to be good for small businesses across Florida. But the Republican Party always comes together. What you're seeing is party unity."
Scott led Sink by 6 percentage points in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, but other polls show the race as closer. The election is Nov. 2.