Sen. Rick Scott, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, on Thursday came out strongly against the bipartisan gun bill poised to pass the upper chamber, putting more daylight between him and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who made the gun deal possible.
Mr. Scott’s willingness to zig when Mr. McConnell zags has confounded GOP leaders. It also increased speculation about the Florida Republican’s presidential ambitions and generated an outpouring of adulation from the Trump-inspired base of the party.
“They are very much in favor of Rick Scott getting crosswise with Senator McConnell because Senator McConnell does a lot of things that the base does not agree with,” said Peter Feaman, a member of the Republican National Committee from Florida. “So getting crosswise with Senator McConnell only helps Senator Scott with his Republican base in Florida.”
Indeed, the deep level of respect the grizzled, battle-tested GOP leader from Kentucky maintains inside the halls of Congress contrasts sharply with the deep disdain directed at him by former President Donald Trump, his die-hard supporters and his political acolytes running in races across the country.
Mr. Scott has a foot in both of those worlds.
The 69-year-old serves alongside Mr. McConnell as chief of the Senate GOP’s arm, which is responsible for defending incumbents. He also keeps an open line of communication with Mr. Trump, who labeled Mr. McConnell an “Old Crow” and has sought to chop down incumbents he deems disloyal.
“He has tried to stay in the national limelight with some success by taking on and becoming the head of the Republican Senatorial Committee to try to help Republicans take back control of the Senate,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “That not only increases your visibility but has the potential to make a long list of friends across the county and build a donor network.”
The prevailing sense is that Mr. Scott is eyeing a bid for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. That would put him on a crash course with a pair of other Florida residents: Mr. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are considered the early frontrunners.
“Right now he doesn’t have a great chance of winning the Republican nomination, but we are still very early,” Mr. Jewett said. “Maybe Trump and DeSantis end up tearing each other apart and then there is room for that third candidate after all.”
Before entering politics, Mr. Scott served as former CEO of a hospital company charged with defrauding Medicare and Medicaid.
Mr. Scott, nonetheless, shocked the political world in 2010 when he rose out of relative obscurity to become governor after dumping $73 million of his own money into the race.
Mr. Scott, the richest member of Congress, also spent $63 million of his personal fortune on his successful 2018 Senate bid. Over time, what was once his standoffish stiff style has become more relaxed.
Brett Doster, a Florida-based GOP strategist, said he anticipates Mr. Scott will test his winning streak in a bid for president but said he does not think the “friction with McConnell is calculated.”
“Scott is a conservative and a former governor and CEO,” Mr. Doster “As such, Scott will have moments of lost patience with the Senate’s constant compromise,” Mr. Doster said. “[It] may irritate McConnell, but that pays dividends as McConnell is the very face of the ‘sold-out’ establishment.”
On Thursday, Mr. Scott panned the bipartisan gun bill.
He said it is far different from the legislation he signed as Florida governor in 2018 following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
“One was the product of a collaborative, well-defined and transparent process,” Mr. Scott said. “The other was the result of secret backroom dealings that did not include input from the majority of Republican members, committee hearings, nor opportunities for amendments, giving members barely an hour to read the bill before we were asked to vote on it.”
“I was hopeful the Senate would follow an open and thorough process like we did in Florida,” he said. “That is unfortunately not the case with the current bill and why I will vote no.”
Mr. McConnell, meanwhile, made it clear he views the proposal as a boon for the Republican brand heading into the fall elections.
“The American people want their constitutional rights protected and their kids to be safe in school. They want both those things at once. And that is just what the bill before the Senate will help accomplish,” Mr. McConnell said Thursday.
Mr. McConnell not only gave the green light to bipartisan negotiations that produced gun legislation, but he also joined 14 other Senate Republicans to advance the bill over the 60-vote filibuster hurdle that killed previous attempts at new gun-control laws for decades.
It is not the first time two GOP power brokers have not seen eye-to-eye ahead of the elections.
Mr. Scott found himself at loggerheads with Mr. McConnell after he released an “11-point Plan to Rescue America,” which included making everyone pay something in income taxes and a five-year sunset of all legislation.
More interested in letting Democrats hang themselves, Mr. McConnell rebuked the plan, saying the GOP will not be touting an agenda “that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.”
Mr. Scott has since revised his proposal but still insists the party must offer a clear vision.
“There are people who don’t believe we ought to run on a plan — I do,” Mr. Scott said this week at breakfast with Washington reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “I’m a business guy. I believe we ought to have a plan and I believe we ought to fight over what’s in it.”
Mr. Scott also passed on the chance to outright endorse Mr. McConnell as majority leader if Republicans flip the Senate this fall, saying he doesn’t want to deal with a “hypothetical.”
Curt Anderson, a longtime Scott advisor, downplayed the 2024 chatter, saying the former governor is 99% focused on winning the Senate in the midterm elections.
“The other 1% is focused on making sure that after we win, the Republican Party actually has a plan for what we will do,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
Mr. Scott breaks the conventional political mold, he said.
“He doesn’t need affirmation from politicians,” Mr. Anderson said. “He doesn’t play by the traditional political rules. He does what he thinks is right and lets the chips fall where they may. … When you think about him, don’t think about what a traditional politician would do.”
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