Could a Democrat Beat Rick Scott in Florida’s US Senate Race?

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Could a Democrat Beat Rick Scott in Florida’s US Senate Race?

When Senator Joe Manchin announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection in West Virginia, Democrats’ uphill battle to maintain their Senate majority in 2024 became steeper. Manchin has long been viewed as the only Democrat who could win in deep red West Virginia—a state Donald Trump carried by nearly 40 points in the last presidential race. The onus on the party now? “You got to go find a state” to flip a seat in, one Democratic strategist told me, describing the new world status. More pointedly, the party needs to widen its aperture beyond states Joe Biden carried in 2020.

Thus, Democrats seem to have shifted their focus to Florida.

Among the political chattering class, Rick Scott is viewed as one of the more vulnerable Republicans in the Senate. Spurned by the Republican establishment and deemed one of the least popular Florida politicians among voters in the state, Scott presents as a reasonable target on paper. He’s also only won races on the margins. In the 2018 Senate race, he beat Democrat Bill Nelson with a result of just 50.1% to 49.9%. In his first gubernatorial bid, Scott won with just 48.9% of the vote to Democrat Alex Sink’s 47.7%. In seeking reelection in 2014, Scott eked out a victory for Florida governor over Democrat Charlie Crist by an even smaller margin, 48.2% to 47.1%. But a win is a win, and winning three statewide races in Florida is nothing to scoff at. “I do think Scott, to give him credit, is an underrated political figure,” Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who serves as CEO of the Biden-supporting PAC Unite the Country, told me. He added that while Scott is often “discounted because of his personality,” he has “proven that he’s got the discipline to stay on message.”

Then there is the matter of Scott’s pocketbook. One of the wealthiest members of the Senate, Scott has shown that he has no qualms about dipping into his personal fortune to fund his political ambitions; in 2018, he dumped nearly $64 million of his own money into his Senate bid to eke out a razor-thin victory. And in Florida, one of the most costly states in which to run a campaign, money matters. When Michigan senator Gary Peters, who is running Senate Democrats’ campaign arm this cycle, put targets on the backs of Scott and Texas senator Ted Cruz—saying the two lawmakers were “not strong in their states”—Scott shot back defiantly. “I wouldn’t want to run against me,” he told CNN.

Democrats insist, however, that they have found the perfect foil to Scott in former representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. “She’s probably as striking a contrast to Rick Scott as you could possibly get,” said Jim Margolis, a Democratic media consultant working on Powell’s campaign, in an interview with VF. “She is the anti–Rick Scott.” And Democrats intend to turn the campaign into an exercise in contrasts: Whereas Scott is one of the wealthiest members of the US Senate, Mucarsel-Powell is an immigrant who worked at a donut shop for minimum wage as a young teen in America; while Scott arguably made himself the face of the Republican Party’s effort to gut entitlement programs, Mucarsel-Powell wrote the bill in the US House to expand Medicare; and as Scott expressed support for federal abortion restrictions and backed Florida’s six-week ban, Mucarsel-Powell continued to be an outspoken advocate for reproductive rights.

Democrats hope that Mucarsel-Powell is the right messenger for the moment. With the candidate being a Spanish-fluent Latina woman running for US Senate in Florida, Democrats argue that she is uniquely positioned to win back the support of the state’s Hispanic community, which the Democratic Party has bled in recent cycles. “Can Debbie find the money to be competitive, and can she change the numbers among Hispanics? I think the more that she can do [that], the more the money’s going to come,” said Schale, who worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns in Florida. “I definitely think Florida’s trended Republican—I’m not an idiot. But I don’t think it’s gone from a state that Obama won by three or four points, or a state that was basically a dead tie five years ago in the governor’s race, to a 20-point Republican state overnight. It hasn’t happened. And a lot of that top of the ticket has been impacted by the fact that we’re doing terrible with Hispanics here.” 

Early polling shows that Mucarsel-Powell might be the right candidate to change Democrats’ luck in Florida. According to a poll of likely general election voters in the state, commissioned by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and conducted by the Global Strategy Group in July, 62% of Latino voters find Scott appealing, while 79% of Latino voters find Mucarsel-Powell appealing. Notably, Mucarsel-Powell also outperformed President Biden by six points in Florida in her 2020 run for the US House (though she ultimately lost)—suggesting that voters could split their ticket in 2024 to send her to the Senate, even if they don’t vote for the president.

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