TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — For more than a year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has engaged in a guessing game about his political future: Will he challenge U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018?
President Donald Trump has already publicly called on Scott to run, but Scott again this week insisted he had not made up his mind. And he sidestepped questions about whether the upset win of Democrat Doug Jones in the neighboring state of Alabama is a sign that a GOP candidate could have difficulty next year in a state that has backed candidates of both parties.
"I haven't made a decision about my future," said Scott. "That race is in 2018, it's still 2017."
Scott, a multimillionaire who had never ran for office until he ran for governor nearly eight years ago, must step down due to term limits. He opened the door to a bid for U.S. Senate shortly after Trump won the presidential election. Trump carried Florida even though President Barack Obama had won the state in the two previous elections.
A Scott challenge to Nelson— who already said he expects the governor to run against him — could help Republicans seeking to hold on to their narrow margin in the Senate. Scott has built-in advantages for his campaign: He can rely on his own money, he can point to job growth under his watch as governor, and his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Irma has helped his poll numbers.
There have been multiple signs that Scott will run, including his recent decision to not seek the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association. This means Scott will have time to spend on his own campaign instead of raising money and assisting GOP candidates in other states during the crucial 2018 elections.
"I would be shocked if he did not run," said Brian Ballard, a top GOP fundraiser and lobbyist who is also an ally of both Trump and Scott. "I can't imagine him not wanting to be in DC with this administration and being able to do things to help the administration and the state."
Scott's rise in politics has parallels to Trump. He was a businessman who was opposed by the Republican establishment when he first ran for governor. Scott narrowly won that year by focusing on the economy and jobs, yet he was considered an underdog because back in 1997 because he had been forced out of his job as the head of Columbia/HCA amid a federal investigation into fraud. Although Scott was never charged with any wrongdoing, the company paid a then-record $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud.
Scott is also friends with Trump, himself a frequent visitor to Florida, and early on tried to push Congress to dismantle the health care overhaul put in place by former President Barack Obama. That effort ultimately fell apart.
Some political observers, however, contend that a backlash against Trump — along with an influx of Puerto Ricans angry over the federal government response to Hurricane Maria — could make it harder for Scott next year.
"I think Rick Scott has been planning the Senate run for so long there's almost nothing that will stop him, but the territory looks different than it did in 2016," said strategist and media consultant Rick Wilson. "Scott has learned over time that he's a guy who does very well with the Republican base, but that may no longer be sufficient if big chunks of electorate are motivated to vote against Donald Trump."
Scott, unlike many candidates in need of either money or attention, can afford to wait. His decision to consider a U.S. Senate run has frozen any other potential Republican candidates from entering the race. The lack of a GOP primary means Scott won't be forced to defend his decision to back away from the anti-immigration platform he championed in his first campaign.
In 2010, Scott did not jump into the governor's race until April of that year. He ultimately spent more than $70 million of his own money to propel him to victory.
"He's not forced to make a decision at this point," said Brian Burgess, who worked on Scott's 2010 campaign and later worked as his communications director. "He's going to take all the time he needs and all the time he can."