Can any Democrat pose a serious challenge to wealthy Rick Scott in 2024? Or is he vulnerable?

In his previous three runs for office, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida has never won a General Election race by more than 1.2 percent. That’s a small slice of the electorate.

The next race — Scott’s U.S. Senate reelection in 2024 — could be easier because of the evolution of Florida becoming a red state. But it also could be challenging because of Scott’s self-induced fumble over his plan to reevaluate the powerhouse federal programs of Social Security and Medicare every five years.

Just recently, Scott was forced to amend his oft-criticized proposal, and Democrats are now hoping that someone will present a serious electoral challenge next year– perhaps Florida lawmakers in Congress or in the Florida Legislature who are still in those seats or have left. Also, the Democratic Party would have to put tens of millions into the race.

Scott has never been shy about digging deep into his own fortunes to bankroll his races. And total spending in the Bill Nelson-Rick Scott race in 2018 was the most expensive ever at the time, at more than $200 million, according to Open Secrets.

 “Running against Scott will be a great leap of faith for any serious Democrat. There does not appear to be (at least in the moment) anyone with the right qualities that is making noise. Democrats are still trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together,” said Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy.

And conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt, when he introduced Scott on his syndicated radio show last Thursday, asked: “Has any Democrat declared against you yet? Because you’re kind of unbeatable, and Floridians know that.”

However, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to encourage a Democratic run against Scott when he told a Kentucky radio station that “I think it will be a challenge for him to him to deal with this in his own reelection in Florida, a state with more elderly people than any other state in America.”

And then came the pivot on Friday.

Scott backtracks

Scott made changes on Friday to exclude Social Security and Medicare in his plan.

“Note to President (Joe) Biden, Sen. (Chuck) Schumer and Sen. McConnell – As you know, this was never intended to apply to Social Security, Medicare or the U.S Navy,” Scott wrote in his 12-point plan to “Rescue America” – the same document that he originally unveiled last April to critical reviews, not just from Democrats, but also by powerful members of his own party. His plan to sunset all federal legislation in five years also now includes exceptions for “national security, veterans benefits and other essential benefits.”

The move took place eight days after President Biden visited the University of Tampa, where White House aides placed a copy of Scott’s 12-point plan on every seat inside of Fletcher Lounge ahead of his speech, which was dominated with references to the plan.

“Now, it’s not likely to get out, but I tell you — I tell you what: It’s likely it got cut drastically if you had to do it every five years,” Biden said. “The very idea the senator from Florida wants to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every five years, I find to be somewhat outrageous, so outrageous that you might not even believe it.”

In addition, McConnell’s feud with Scott has been well documented and was inflamed when Scott challenged the Kentucky Senator for party leadership in the U.S. Senate immediately after last November’s election. Scott, as head of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, struggled to get Republicans to take back the majority in that body.

While comments about sunsetting Social Security are fraught with peril in Florida, there are some Republicans who appreciate Scott’s candor.

“Generally, my feeling is that Rick Scott is the only one speaking an uncomfortable truth that politically is not popular, but by all economic models, an inevitably that these programs run out of funding. Nobody in my generation plans to have Social Security,” says Jake Hoffman, the executive director of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans.

“I think the Biden attack on the Scott plan will ring hollow,” adds Evan Power, the recently elected vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida. “The idea of sunsetting federal bureaucracy is popular and they know that does not mean an end to Social Security.”

A Congressional Budget Office report issued last week warned that federal spending on Social Security and Medicare is projected to almost double over the decade – but Republican U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has agreed that reductions to those federal programs are now off the table.

“I will give the Democrats credit on messaging since the State of the Union,” adds Hoffman.

Potential Democratic candidates?

Names being floated about potential candidates against Scott include former Florida members of Congress — such as Stephanie Murphy and Gwen Graham — suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren and state lawmakers Fentrice Driskell, the House Democratic Leader, and Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando. Graham is a former U.S. House member who ran for the Governor’s race in 2018, losing in the Primary.

Murphy made history when she became the first Vietnamese American woman elected to Congress after ousting 12-term GOP Congressman John Mica in 2016. She served as a co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of House Democrats that self-identified as being focused on national security and transcending party lines and was a member of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 attack. She did not return a request for comment.

“I think she’d be a very strong candidate,“ says Tampa-based Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who worked with Murphy during her three terms in the House of Representatives (2017-2023). “A contrast to Rick Scott because she was a strong voice for seniors – plus her personal story of fleeing communism. (Scott) wouldn’t be able to use his tired rhetoric that he’s a champion against communism against someone like Stephanie Murphy, whose family fled Vietnam and communism.”

Warren has been hailed as a potential statewide candidate in Florida by the Tampa Bay area media ever since he stunned a 16-year GOP incumbent during his first election victory for Hillsborough County State Attorney in 2016. That was before he was suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis last August, who alleged that he had neglected his duties after he had publicly said he would not enforce bans on abortion and transgender care.

A spokesperson for Warren told the Phoenix that “right now he is solely focused on getting his job back. He honestly is not looking at anything else or thinking about any other options.”

Graham and Driskell did not return a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Eskamani says it’s not her time.

“A lot of everyday folks want me to run but right now I’m running for reelection in the House,” she told the Phoenix in a text message. “Anything is possible, but I think FL needs to rebuild a lot of infrastructure before Democrats can win statewide.”

A new chair for the Democratic Party

That rebuilding is expected to begin once the Florida Democratic Party has a new chair, which will be decided this coming weekend in Maitland, in Central Florida.

In 2022, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and other Democratic-aligned political committees notably declined to spend many resources in Florida. Former Party Chairman Manny Diaz noted after last November’s election that while national organizations invested nearly $60 million to Florida Democratic efforts in 2018, those investments plummeted to just $1.3 million last year. However, Democrat Val Demings substantially outraised Marco Rubio in the 2022 U.S. Senate race, yet still lost by double digits.

Scott has helped out the Democrats cause nationally.

“Rick Scott’s agenda to slash Medicare and Social Security is a tremendous point of vulnerability not only for himself but to every Republican Senate candidate in 2024, and voters will hold them all accountable for their party’s agenda which attacks those vital programs,” says David Bergstein, communications director for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, a day before Scott altered his “Rescue America” plan.

Shortly after Scott’s change was announced, DNC officials sent out a press release listing the “20 times Rick Scott doubled down on his plan to put Social Security and Medicare at risk.”

Some political observers say that demographically, Florida is a much different place than it was five years ago, in part because of the migration of more voters who came to the Sunshine State when the pandemic hit the country three years ago.

“I think the state has had a tipping point since the last time Scott ran,” said St. Petersburg-based political operative Barry Edwards, who has hosted a conservative radio show but also works with Democrats.  “He ran against behemoths – the three strongest Democrats since Lawton Chiles – and still beat them. The people below them – there is a monumental gap between Alex (Sink), Charlie (Crist) and Nelson.”

(The late Chiles was a Governor in the 1990s; Sink lost to Scott in the Governor’s race in 2010; Nelson is a former U.S. Senator who lost to Scott in the 2018 U.S. Senate race, and Crist just recently lost to DeSantis in the 2022 Governor’s race.)

Noting the major voting registration gains for Republicans since 2018, Edwards says he’s predicting a double-digit victory for Scott over whomever the Democrats nominate.

Meanwhile, “Florida Democrats definitely face an uphill fight to win any race in this state, and it will be even more difficult if Ron DeSantis is the GOP presidential nominee,” says Kartik Krishnaiyer, the progressive editor of The Florida Squeeze. “To beat Scott, Democrats MUST focus on kitchen-table issues and Scott’s willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare.”

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Republished with permission from The Florida Phoenix.




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