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Florida Dems hope Rick Scott and his bank account will work out the fourth time around

TAMPA, Fla. – As Democrats prepare for another attempt against Florida Republican Rick Scott, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is hoping things will work out for the fourth time.

In three statewide election campaigns over the course of eight years, the Democrats have suffered three unbearably close defeats to the former governor and the current U.S. senator.

“I know I can beat Rick Scott,” the former congresswoman from Miami told a room full of supporters this week. “This is a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have here in Florida, and we can't miss this opportunity.”

She and other Democrats have a number of reasons why they can finally beat Scott this time. In his three previous general election campaigns, his margin has steadily narrowed: from 1.2 percent against banker Alex Sink in the 2010 gubernatorial race, to 1 percent against former governor and Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in 2014, to just two-tenths of a percent against then-incumbent Senator Bill Nelson in 2018.

They point out that Scott has never had to run in a presidential election year in which Democrats in Florida have mobilized voters better than in midterm election years. And they argue that Scott is particularly vulnerable this time because he has publicly supported strict abortion restrictions and a phasing out of Social Security and Medicare.

“These are really lost issues for him,” said Nikki Fried, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party. “The issues that matter to Floridians today are going to hurt him.”

In addition, Mucarsel-Powell's life story – she was born in Ecuador, financed her own education and is fluent in Spanish – not only makes her a perfect candidate to run against Scott, but her presence at the top of the ballot will also help Democratic candidates across Florida, Fried said.

“We have a really good opportunity to get into the Hispanic communities,” she said.

If Scott is in trouble, there is no sign of it on his campaign team. The former Columbia/HCA chief made hundreds of millions of dollars running the for-profit hospital chain, which in 2003 was forced to pay a record $1.7 billion in Medicare fraud fines after coming under federal investigation. Scott invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself 75 times in his testimony to investigators – a fact that every opponent since Republican Bill McCollum in the 2010 primaries has used against him, without success.

Chris Hartline, who has worked for Scott since he was governor and is now working on his re-election campaign, said Scott and his team are taking the campaign seriously but disagree that Florida's new six-week abortion ban and the issue of a constitutional amendment that would restore abortion rights in Florida pose a particularly big threat to him. Nor are they concerned about a second ballot question that would legalize marijuana and the voters it might bring to the polls.

“It is possible that both amendments will pass and that (presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald) Trump and Rick Scott and many other candidates on the lower ballots will win clear victories,” he said.

Organization around abortion

During a two-day tour of Tampa earlier this week, Mucarsel-Powell gathered a dozen activists to discuss abortion rights at the Hillsborough County Democratic Party office, a few miles north of downtown.

On one wall hangs an enlarged quote from President Joe Biden's State of the Union address this year, in which he quoted the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade: “'Women are not without electoral or political power.' You're about to see how right you were.”

Directly below hangs a framed pink poster titled “Protect Freedom: Vote Yes on Amendment 4” – decorated with Biden-style aviator sunglasses.

If a single issue can propel someone who lost re-election after only one term in Congress to defeat an incumbent senator in Florida, it may well be abortion. Although Florida's electorate has produced Republican governors and a solid Republican legislature for nearly a generation, it has never been firmly anti-abortion.

Now that a six-week ban has been newly enacted and there is a constitutional amendment that would reverse it on the November ballot, Mucarsel-Powell believes she can use what she hopes will be growing voter enthusiasm for the change to pull off a surprise victory over Scott.

“This is a fundamental civil right of a woman,” she told her guests, who included local party committee chairs as well as advocates who are pushing for Florida women to be able to obtain abortions in other states, such as North Carolina.

“I remember what it was like before Roe v. Wade,” said Gail Gibson, an officer with the South Tampa Democratic Club.

While Scott had nothing to do with the six-week ban signed by his successor, Ron DeSantis, he did approve a law in 2015 that required women in Florida to wait at least 24 hours before getting an abortion. In addition, he told an Orlando television station in April that he would have signed the six-week ban if he had been governor.

Mucarsel-Powell told activists that she often thinks about organizing a march across the state to mobilize women to take action.

“I'm ready to march from Key West to Tallahassee and take women along the way,” she said. “We'll call it the El Camino. The El Camino for women.”

A Senate race with a nine-digit result

However, some experienced Democratic consultants in Florida are less optimistic about Mucarsel-Powell's chances.

One, who asked not to be identified, said that while Mucarsel-Powell, 53, could provide a good contrast to Scott, 71, he still has the advantage that has gotten him through each of his elections: a virtually bottomless bank account. In his three campaigns so far, Scott has spent $150 million of his own money.

If things look bad in one of Florida's 10 television markets – including one of the country's most expensive in Miami – Scott is both able and willing to write a seven-figure check to improve the situation, the consultant said.

One example is the recent imbroglio over in vitro fertilization. Scott last week voted against a bill establishing a national right to the procedure, along with all but two Republican senators. Almost immediately afterward, he launched a new television ad proclaiming his support for IVF as part of a previously reserved seven-figure purchase.

Mucarsel-Powell and her staff are adamant about pointing out the obvious hypocrisy – but in reality, the consultant says, far more voters in Florida will see the ad than are likely to know that he voted against the law.

“It’s good to be able to write a check,” said the consultant.

“Scott voted against a bill last week that would create a national right to in vitro fertilization. Almost immediately afterward, he launched a new television ad proclaiming his support for IVF as part of a previously reserved seven-figure purchase.”

A second adviser, who also asked not to be identified, said a win against Scott would likely cost $100 million in a state whose size, population and vastly unequal demographics still require vast amounts of expensive television advertising.

“I just don't know where that $100 million is going to come from,” the second aide said, especially given that there are Senate elections in other states like Montana, Nevada and Ohio that Democrats must win to maintain control of the chamber.

Hartline, Scott's campaign adviser, agreed that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other outside groups were unlikely to help Mucarsel-Powell. As for the accusation of hypocrisy on the IVF issue by her campaign, Hartline said such voting decisions happen all the time in Congress. “He voted against the Democrats' bill and supported a different version of that bill. Not unusual,” he said.

In an interview with HuffPost, Mucarsel-Powell said Scott's fundamental problem is that Florida voters already know him. “They know him, and because they know him so well, they don't want to vote for him,” she said. “So a lot of that work has already been done for me. Now I need to make sure I have the tools to get in front of Floridians who don't know me yet, so they can get to know me and I can earn their trust and their vote.”

And that, she said, doesn't require $100 million. “I don't need all the money Rick Scott has,” she said. “I know I need a certain amount to make sure we beat him.”

Anna Harden

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