Sen. Rick Scott woos CPAC to bridge divide between Trump, Mitch McConnell


ORLANDO, Florida — Sen. Rick Scott walked on stage Friday here at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference with a foot in two worlds — straddling the divide between the Republican Party establishment and the base wed to former President Donald Trump.

In his new role leading Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, Mr. Scott is the defender of the party’s incumbents. It also puts him in the middle of the clash between Trump voters whose energy is indispensable in electing Republicans and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell who is both the party’s highest-ranking elected officials and anathema to the Trump base.

The conservative activists gathered at CPAC demanded fealty to Mr. Trump or, more accurately, Mr. Trump’s voters.

“If he is trying to show allegiance to the base of the party then it is not going to be to McConnell,” said Jill Quentzel, a political activist and former broadcaster who lives in Florida. “We’re pretty confused about McConnell right now — whether he’s a traitor, whether he’s just a straddler, whether it matters about his wife’s Chinese shipping business.”

Mr. Scott’s mission is both straightforward and complicated: prevent GOP skirmishes from breaking out into a full-scale civil war that could tear apart the party and sink its chances of winning back a Senate majority.

“I wonder if Rick Scott, in his head, when he wakes up every once in a while says, ‘Why did I take on this job again?’” said Aubrey Jewett, political science at the University of Central Florida.

On stage, Mr. Scott joked, perhaps half-seriously, that he was named chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee because nobody else wanted the job.

“People say my job is to mediate between warring factions on the right and mediate the war between the party leaders,” he said. “I got some news for you. I’m not going to mediate anything. Instead, I’m going to fight for our conservative values.”

He said those values — defending the 2nd Amendment, free speech, religious liberty, individual responsibility and freedom — would unite Americans.

History suggests Mr. Scott has taken the NRSC reins at an opportune time because the party of a newly elected president usually struggles in midterm elections.

If that happens, Mr. Scott could emerge from the 2022 elections with bragging rights as he possibly explores a White House bid of his own in 2024.

The GOP holds 20 of the 34 seats up for grabs next year, including four seats that will be open following retirements.

The risk for Mr. Scott, however, is if the GOP fails to retake the Senate and he gets caught in the crossfire of primary battles, pitting him against a candidate preferred by the former president, who savors political vendettas.

“It is no secret that he would probably like to run for president himself,” Mr. Jewett said of Mr. Scott. “So that is weighing on his mind as well because, at least currently, I would say if you are a Republican who is not in Trump’s good graces you have zero chance of securing the Republican nomination for president as things stand now.”

Mr. Trump signaled he could be a team player this week when he endorsed Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas.

Mr. Scott confronted the intra-party battles head-on this week, telling his colleagues in a sternly worded two-page memo this week that “now is not the time for division” and “self-indulgent divisions.”

“The only way we can lose is if we stop ourselves by needlessly fracturing,” he said. “Save it for another day. The Republican Civil War is now canceled.”

That could be wishful thinking.

The pro-Trump mob’s Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol deepened the fissures between Senate GOP leaders and Mr. Trump.

Mr. McConnell called Mr. Trump’s repeated claims that Democrats stole the election, which fueled the attack, a “disgraceful dereliction of duty.”

Mr. Trump fired back.

“Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again,” he said.

Mr. Trump said: “Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First.”

In a video released this week, Mr. Scott claims the McConnell-Trump beef is over.

“As chairman of the senatorial committee many have told me that I should mediate this conflict,” he said in a recent video. “Here’s my response: absolutely not.”

“I’m not going to mediate it, I’m going to end it,” he said.

A major test of party unity could come in the form of Sen. John Thune’s re-election in South Dakota.

Mr. Thune, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leaders, fell into Mr. Trump’s crosshairs after he refused to go all-in on his claims the election was stolen.

“I hope to see the great Governor of South Dakota @KristiNoem, run against RINO @SenJohnThune, in the upcoming 2022 Primary,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter in January. “She would do a fantastic job in the U.S. Senate, but if not Kristi, others are already lining up. South Dakota wants strong leadership, NOW!”

Ms. Noem has said she has no intention of running, though speculation picked up again after the news broke that Donald Trump Jr. was hosting a fundraiser for her at Mar-a-Lago.

Ms. Noem is scheduled to address CPAC Saturday. Mr. Thune is not slated to speak.

Speaking to reporters this week on Capitol Hill, Mr. Scott said he told Mr. Trump over the weekend he welcomes his involvement in the 2022 election.

“I told him I want to win in 22 and said I am going to be very specific on where I think he can be helpful and he gets to make a decision on whether he wants to do it or not,” he said.

Brett Doster, a Florida-based GOP strategist, said Mr. Scott is a “savvy leader who understands the focus of the mission.”  

“Defeating Sen. Thune is not going to be the mission of his organization although I am sure he shares the sentiment of many conservatives that RINOs like Thune, Collins, and Romney make Judas Iscariot appear loyal,” Mr. Doster said.

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