JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Republican Gov. Rick Scott is already getting ready for the 2014 election. So are the Democrats who hope to challenge him.
The Republican Party of Florida is buying television ads to promote Scott's policy successes in hopes of reversing the negative impression many voters have of him, and the governor and party are quietly raising money for his re-election. One Democrat has already said she hopes to challenge him and others are not so subtly considering it.
Normally, politicians and parties at least try to create the perception that they're focused on the current election cycle and not the one after it, but this year Florida is avoiding the short breather between elections and is suddenly blurring preparations for November's presidential and Senate races with the battle for governor that will conclude two years later.
"We can run a presidential and a U.S. Senate campaign and at the same time raise money for the governor," said state Republican Chairman Lenny Curry before Scott addressed about 700 Duval County Republicans. "People that have been around politics understand money is the mother's milk. It is what it is. And when prospective opponents see the kind of money we're raising in an off election year, it will send a message."
The state GOP is already sending messages. Three of them. It's running ads promoting Scott and his policies across the state. The first boasts that unemployment is dropping and credits Scott's business friendly policies. The other two promote Scott's push for a billion dollar increase in school money in the upcoming budget and a new law that tries to reduce motor vehicle insurance fraud.
While all are clearly politically motivated, they all are also directed at a wide audience. Job creation, education and preventing fraud to save consumers money are feel-good issues. Of course, unemployment is dropping nationally and Scott cut school spending his first year in office and Democrats are sure to point that out.
"It's smart on their part — when it's a little quiet, when Republicans are fighting in the (presidential) primary — to say 'Let's get on out and get the governor's numbers up," said Screven Watson, a Democratic political consultant. "I don't think it's worked. It's hard to say in May in 2012, but he's running out of time."
During his speech in Jacksonville, Scott mostly highlighted his efforts to make the state more business friendly, which is exactly what the party wants right now.
"When I took office we had lost jobs for four straight years. Four years ago more people left the state than moved into the state for the first time since I think 1946. We had almost 12 percent unemployment," Scott told the crowd before touting cutting corporate tax rates and getting rid of regulations. "Now, does it work? It absolutely works. Unemployment's come down. We're at a three-year low and last month unemployment's dropped faster than any month in 20 years."
In 2010, Scott, a Naples resident, spent more than $70 million of his own money and still barely won election in a year where other Florida Republicans easily cruised to victory.
Scott very early on was defined by his detractors as way further to the right of most Floridians. It wasn't hard to do. Scott announced his first budget proposal in a church during a tea party rally. He hired on tea partiers to his staff. He chose conservative radio and television shows to deliver his message and shunned mainstream media.
The result was approval ratings that hovered around 30 percent. The far-right wing of his party loved him and that was about it. Scott knows he needs to turn that image around if he wants to be re-elected. He's tried to connect with everyday folks with work days, including behind the counter at a doughnut shop, picking oranges and teaching classes.
He's also started meeting with newspaper editorial boards. And he doesn't go around talking about social issues, like the bills he signed in his first year that ban doctors from asking patients about gun ownership and require women to get an ultrasound before an abortion.
The idea is to try to get his numbers up now before the presidential election ends and the focus quickly turns to the governor's race.
"A huge portion of politics is good public relations and I think it's pretty clear that the governor has worked very hard to aggressively project and talk about what his record is," said political strategist Brett Doster. "Rick Scott is governing well and he has upped the tempo in his public relations effort."
Democrats, though, see the 2014 race as a huge opportunity after losing the last four governor's races. While Scott's approval rating has improved, it's still low.
State Sen. Nan Rich has already said she'll seek the Democratic nomination. Former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who lost to Scott in 2010, has set up the Florida Next Foundation to stay active in policy issues, much like Jeb Bush did after losing his first governor's race.
And rumors constantly swirl about former Gov. Charlie Crist, an independent who left the Republican Party before leaving office. Some are pushing him to challenge Scott as a Democrat. Among other names party insiders mention as potential candidates: Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.
"We've got Nan Rich already announced. We have other people talking about it. It's already starting," said Watson, who expects the governor's race to start full throttle almost immediately after the presidential race ends. "It's going to be really hard for (Scott) to improve his numbers when everyone is bashing him."
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