Why GOP presidential contenders are cropping up in Florida

Sensing a strong November showing, the Republican Party has eschewed any potential policy platform for its candidates. But Florida Sen. Rick Scott decided to release an 11-point plan, purportedly for Republicans to rally around. The result has been blow-back from the Senate Republican leadership. Scott also has been promoted as a potential candidate against Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for the Senate leadership, though he denied interest in that position — and for good reason.

Despite its high profile, Senate Majority Leader is not like the very powerful Speaker of the House. Any Senator can gum up the works, and — as we’ve seen with McConnell — other Republicans may use him for target practice once something goes wrong. There is a reason the position has been called the “Majority Pleader.” 

But Scott’s platform does suggest that he might be looking elsewhere; like practically everyone else in high office in Florida, Scott appears to be mentally measuring the drapes in the Oval Office. 

It may seem odd that one solo Senator has decided to plant the policy flag, but it’s a sign of how every Florida elected official likely feels. Scott is just the latest Florida official trying to establish himself as a contender for the Republican nomination.  

Consider Florida. It may have four of its most prominent residents seeking the GOP nomination in 2024: Former president Donald Trump is the presumed prohibitive favorite for the nomination, provided he runs for it; Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a name for himself as a top candidate — to the degree that he has reportedly upset Trump; and there is every reason to think that both Sens. Marco Rubio and Scott are interested. Rubio made a serious effort in 2016, where he came in third in delegates and fourth in the popular vote. Scott has now released his 11-point plan. Both have made the traditional pilgrimage to Iowa, a sure sign of interest for any presidential hopeful. 

It’s not coincidence. Florida is by far the largest swing state in the country. Among the three states with populations over 20 million, it is the only one that has switched its support in a presidential race in the last 30 years. Florida has been a bellwether state, meaning that its votes have regularly gone to the eventual winner of the presidential election. 2020 was the first time it had given its Electoral College votes to a losing candidate since 1992, breaking the second longest “winning streak” of any state. Despite the Republicans’ current lock on the state government, it has regularly swung on the presidential level, and Trump only won it by 3.3 percent.

Florida is also “due” for a candidate on the ticket. With the exception of Trump after his move to the state in 2020, Florida has never really had a candidate on either part of the presidential ticket. The other large states have had plenty of candidates. From 1868-1948, there was only one election without a candidate from New York or Ohio on the ticket. In the middle of the last century, Ohio and New York were replaced as the presidential and VP incubator states by the new population powerhouses California and Texas, which themselves had only two elections between 1948-2004 without a candidate on the ballot. As with other big states in the past, Florida’s booming population, which took the state from 9th largest to 3rd in 50 years, makes its officials obvious contenders for the top slots in a presidential race. 

But there is a separate technical advantage that Florida confers upon its potential candidates: Florida’s rules for delegate allocation in the GOP presidential primary. The Republican nomination for president will be awarded to whichever candidate captures a majority of the delegates to the convention — in 2020, the GOP had 2,550 delegates. Therefore, a candidate that received 1,276 delegates would win. 

For the GOP, each state is allowed to use its own method of dividing the delegate vote (by contrast, the Democrats require each state to divide delegates based on some proportion of the vote). Most big states divide the GOP vote based on the results in each congressional district and potentially based on a proportional share of the results, but Florida — the third largest prize with 122 delegates in 2020 — is the largest state to use a winner-take-all method. Winning Florida gives a candidate nearly 10 percent of the delegates needed for the nomination. No other state has anything close to that one-shot prize.  

While winning Florida alone is a public relations boost, winning all of the delegates helps in any extended primary fight. It potentially would allow a candidate to take the lead — and in the unlikely event that no candidate has an absolute majority by the date of the convention, every delegate counts. If there is a floor fight, a development that has long been threatened but unseen in more than a generation, there is a need to rack up delegate totals. To win such a large haul in one shot shows how Florida is that much more valuable for a contender. 

Florida’s role as the biggest swing state and its delegate rules in a Republican nomination battle make it potentially the ultimate prize in a presidential race. 

Rick Scott’s 11-point plan is just the latest in what may be a series of shots across Trump’s bow from potential Florida contenders, who likely see their name recognition in their home state as an advantage out of the gate.

Joshua Spivak is the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.” He is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and writes the Recall Elections Blog.

Tags 2024 presidential election delegates Donald Trump Florida politics Florida primary Florida Republicans Marco Rubio primary election rules Republican Party Republican presidential candidates Republican presidential primaries Rick Scott Ron DeSantis

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