Rick Scott Claims the Most Elusive Prize in Florida Politics

Rick Scott smiles as he speaks to supporters at an election watch party, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, in Naples, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Gov. Rick Scott did not just defeat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in a key race; the governor was able to claim a prize that only a handful of Florida politicos have achieved: moving from the Governor’s Mansion to the U.S. Senate.

Before Scott’s win only three governors in Florida history ever made it to the Senate after their time in Tallahassee:  Spessard Holland, Bob Graham and Napoleon Bonaparte Broward who died before he could take his Senate seat.

There are plenty of governors who failed trying to make the leap to Washington. Even some of the best regarded governors in Florida history like Reubin Askew and LeRoy Collins failed in their Senate bids.  Looking back at Florida history, governors like Farris Bryant, Fred Cone, David Sholtz, Doyle Carlton and John W. Martin crashed and burned when they sought a Senate seat.  More recently, so did Charlie Crist though he did manage to claim a House seat two years ago which he kept handily on Election Day. Lawton Chiles is the only Florida politician to ever win the governorship after serving in the Senate, making him the rare politician who headed home after time in the Beltway.

There’s plenty of reasons for why governors generally fail when they try to move onto the Senate. While his look at Florida in “Southern Politics in State and Nation” is certainly dated, V.O. Key was spot on with some of his points about the Sunshine State. Florida’s geography and demographics make it near impossible for a politician to stay atop the state for too long a period of time. There’s simply too many new voters scattered across ten or more markets for anyone to remain in the saddle for too long. Just ask Jeb Bush who clearly lost out his “Florida’s favorite Republican” title in the last presidential election.

Being stretched out and facing high voter turnover every few years, Florida is almost impossible to politically master. This was true when it was, essentially, a one party state as part of the Democrats’ Solid South. It’s just as true now when statewide contests for president, governor, Senate, even agriculture commissioner go down to the wire almost every election cycle.

Key stressed Florida’s unique political culture, insisting the state was “unbossed” and “unled.” That first part holds true after more than a half a century since Scott upended the GOP leadership when he defeated then Attorney General Bill McCollum in the gubernatorial primary back in 2010. But that second part is still up for debate, especially in Scott’s case. After two terms of record jobs growth, a great economy, the highest number of tourists the state has ever seen and bouncing back from a series of hurricanes, Florida has been far from “unled”–and voters rewarded Scott by sending him to the Senate.