Rick Scott's hurricane response boosts potential Senate run

Rick Scott's hurricane response boosts potential Senate run
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Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) handling of Hurricane Irma has boosted his profile ahead of an expected Senate bid.

Scott is term-limited out of the governor’s mansion, and Republicans, including President Trump, have urged him to consider challenging Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonOvernight Health Care: Ryan's office warns he wasn't part of ObamaCare deal | House conservatives push for mandate repeal in final tax bill | Dem wants probe into CVS-Aetna merger Ryan's office warning he wasn't part of deal on ObamaCare: source Overnight Health Care: Funding bill could provide help for children's health program | Questions for CVS-Aetna deal | Collins doubles funding ask for ObamaCare bill MORE (D-Fla.) next year. His aggressive approach to Irma, which saw him order an extensive evacuation ahead of the storm and coordinate disaster relief efforts as the storm came ashore, has sent his political stock even higher.

Before Irma, Scott’s ability to respond to a hurricane had gone mostly untested, with Florida avoiding a major storm for his entire term. But the governor’s preparedness has impressed Republicans and some Democrats, all of whom have long expected Scott to challenge Nelson next year.

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Scott “came up to bat having never been through a huge storm,” said Anthony Pedicini, a Tampa-based Republican consultant.

“This was a storm that was going to affect the entire state and the most populated portions of the state. This guy has handled it like he’s done it every day.”

In the days before Irma cut across the state this past weekend, Scott was a constant presence on Florida televisions, urging more than 7 million residents to evacuate.

The governor ordered police escorts for gasoline tankers to help fuel evacuees’ cars. In the wake of the storm, he’s made a point to quickly repair the state’s electricity grid and has stayed in contact with Trump, a longtime ally, promising federal support for the state’s recovery effort.

Scott toured the state throughout the effort, flanked at every turn by emergency personnel.

Irma was a “moment for him to shine,” said Chris Ingram, a GOP strategist.

“It solidifies his position as a leading contender in the Republican field” ahead of 2018, he said. “I think he’s pretty determined he’s going to do it and this just kind of helps scare away any potential challengers to him.”

Nelson, a three-term incumbent who has served through several hurricanes during his congressional tenure, has ramped up his public presence as well. 

In the wake of Irma, he urged the Trump administration to establish an emergency gasoline reserve in Florida, similar to one established in the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy. And he’s made the rounds on television, giving high-profile national interviews before, during and after the storm. 

Nelson missed Senate votes this week, telling CNN on Tuesday that he was moving through the state to inspect damage there.

“Now is the tough, hard reality of digging out of all of the rubble, cleaning it up, trying to get your power back,” he said. “And whether you got it with the wind, or whether you got it with the water, either way it’s a tough slog out.”

Officials in both parties consider the 74-year-old Nelson an institution of Florida politics, making it all the more important for Scott to get in the spotlight amid his administration’s most trying natural disaster.

“Bill Nelson is almost a staple in Florida,” Pedicini said. “But I think this is a defining moment [for Scott] in that, as the restoration and rebuilding continues here in day five ... I think he has even more chances to shine.”

Scott was elected governor of Florida in the Tea Party wave of 2010, seven years after moving to the state. The former businessman ran on a conservative platform that gave him an edge in the GOP primary and set the tone for his administration.

Republicans have long considered him a likely challenger to Nelson. Scott told reporters in May that he was still mulling a bid, although he added that “a lot of people have called me” about running.

Trump has publicly pushed him toward a run, telling a Florida audience in June that Scott is “doing a great job” and “I hope he runs for Senate.”

“I know I’m not supposed to say that,” Trump said. “I hope he runs for the Senate. Rick, are you running?”

Scott would bring his own deep pockets and a load of campaign cash to any race against Nelson. The former hospital executive spent $70 million of his own money on his first gubernatorial campaign, and Florida newspapers have chronicled his efforts to stay in touch with campaign donors from his 2014 reelection campaign. 

Scott is politically close with Trump, announcing earlier this year that he would chair a federal political action committee, called New Republican, to support the president and expand the GOP’s appeal nationwide. 

Observers say Nelson has ramped up his fundraising this year, something they attribute to the threat of a challenge from a wealthy and well-funded opponent. 

But Florida Democrats say not to underestimate Nelson, one of 10 Senate Democrats up for reelection next year in states that Trump won in the presidential election. 

Kevin Cate, a Democratic consultant who has worked with Nelson’s campaign in the past, said he expects the senator to make an aggressive push for a bipartisan Irma recovery package in Congress.

“When it comes to hurricanes — and we’re very familiar with hurricanes — the aftermath is where leaders are made or broken,” he said. 

“Sen. Nelson has been through a number of storms and understands the state and federal partnership that’s required, and I would expect him to be working diligently for the good of the state.”

Scott’s next big challenge will be managing recovery efforts following the storm. On Wednesday, the mayor of Broward County, Fla. announced that at least five people have died at a nursing home — deaths possibly caused by the loss of air conditioning. Millions of other Floridians are without power, officials are still assessing damage to public infrastructure and insurance companies are bracing for a wave of claims that could test policymakers’ ability to limit rate hikes.

“Scott has done a good job, he’s been everywhere, he’s been communicating and the governor's preparedness has been on point,” said GOP consultant Alex Patton. 

“Now the real work begins. He’ll be judged over the next weeks and months.”