In a recent private meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trumpmade a personal pitch to Senate Republican campaign chief Rick Scott. “You should run for Senate majority leader,” he told the National Republican Senatorial Committee, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
It wasn’t the first time, either: Trump has repeatedly told Scott he’d be great at the job and should challenge Mitch McConnell,multiple people with knowledge of the interactions told POLITICO. The Florida Republican didn’t tell Trump “no” that day — though he’s told reporters that he supports McConnell for leader. Instead, Scott quickly pivoted to the reason for his meeting.
“We have to focus on winning” the Senate, Scott told Trump. “My only focus is on winning.”
The Florida governor-turned-senator is navigating some treacherous terrain — and not just the Senate midterms landscape. He’s trying to balance working with the GOP’s two most powerful figures in McConnell and Trump, who also happen to despise each other.
But Scott’s predicament also underscores his rising stock in the party. The ambitious former businessman is seen as a possible presidential contender — or, more recently in some Trump circles, as a dark-horse candidate for leadership someday.
This week only cemented speculation about the latter: Scott, 69, made waves — and infuriated some McConnell allies — when he bucked the GOP leader’s decision not to lay out a policy agenda for the campaign and instead released his own. Whereas McConnell wanted to make the election a referendum on President Joe Biden’sunpopularity, inflation and other Democratic failures, Scott unilaterally decided that Republicans should also state what they’re for.
His list of red-meat proposals addressed topics ranging from term limits and finishing Trump’s border wall to nationwide voter ID laws and banning transgender athletes from women’s sports.
Scott’s move opened a rare tactical divide between McConnell and the man leading the party’s efforts to win the Senate. But despite internal criticism from some in his own party, Scott isn’t soft-pedaling his platform. He’s spending seven figures from his own campaign account to promote it, starting Friday. This weekend, he’ll tout his proposals at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Scott and McConnell have a professional relationship, but they’ve never been close. In fact, there were plenty of concerns among McConnell allies about Scott’s decision to bring in his own people to run the NRSC rather than relying on those who’d worked in that world before.
There were also worries that his objections to the Electoral College results on Jan. 6 could repel donors — though Scott has managed to raise record sums of money.
Scott has kept Trump close where McConnell has not: While Trump was attacking McConnell for saying the then-president incited a riot at the Capitol, the NRSC chair awarded the former president with the committee’s “Champion for Freedom Award” in April. That caused eye rolls even among some Republicans. Others in the GOP, however, saw it as a wise move for Scott’s future political ambitions.
Scott, a self-made pol who has gotten to where he is almost entirely on his own, has always rankled the establishment. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and the Republican Governors Association vocally backed his primary opponent for Florida governor in 2010 — one of the reasons Scott to this day refuses to wade into any GOP primaries. Then, in 2018, the NRSC refused to help Scott in his campaign to unseat then-Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, telling him he had the bandwidth to raise money or self-fund. Scott won by 10,000 votes.
As a result, Scott has always followed his own counsel. As governor, he swore off the political back-scratching in Tallahassee that his GOP predecessors had embraced. Instead, he ran ads in the districts of state officials whose support he needed to pass his agenda.
He has a similar reputation in Washington as a somewhat stubborn loner. While he gave McConnell and RNC Chair Ronna McDaniela heads-up before unveiling his midterm platform, he didn’t ask their permission, let alone consult with anyone in party leadership, we’re told.
“Rick Scott doesn’t give a fuck about what McConnell world thinks,” said one senior Republican official who’s not in either camp but has observed the back and forth between them closely.
Scott’s spokesperson Chris Hartline had a different take, one McConnell’s team also endorsed: “Chairman Scott and Leader McConnell are working hand in hand to win back the Senate in November.”
Scott’s policy platform gambit has dominated chatter among D.C. Republicans this week. There are two competing views about what he did:
His skeptics say he’s putting his own political ambitions above his mandate of capturing the Senate. The argument is that his midterm agenda plays great among the base, but at the risk of alienating independent voters needed to flip the chamber. McConnell has a track record of winning campaigns, they add, and Scott should follow his lead.
Critics also note that Scott’s platform provided Democrats with fresh ammunition to hit the GOP. One of the planks would require all Americans to pay taxes, when currently about half of them — mainly people with low-income and older adults — do not. Democrats are having a field day labeling the plan a tax hike. And many prominent Republicans have distanced themselves from it or panned that proposal outright, as POLITICO reported this week — including even longtime advisers to anti-tax king Grover Norquist.
McConnell’s office declined to comment on whether the leader supports Scott’s agenda.
Scott’s allies contend this has nothing to do with ambition and everything to do with winning. McConnell may know about elections, but he’s neither popular among, nor has the finger on the pulse of, base voters.
Scott also has gotten an enormous amount of face time with a new cadre of post-Trump donors during his travels as NRSC chief. His associates say Scott knows their thinking better than McConnell does.
Those who agree with his decision to put out an agenda — a group that includes senior officials at the RNC — say that donors and GOP voters are eager for a forward-looking agenda laying out what Republicans will do if they win. There’s a concern about a repeat of 2017, when Republicans, after running on repealing Obamacare, had basically no plan to realize that promise.
Plus, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is planning to put out his own midterms agenda. Why, Scott’s backers say, should Senate Republicans not do the same?