Rick Scott pulled off his one-man political revolution Tuesday night, narrowly defeating Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary for governor.
With most precincts counted, it became clear that Scott had overcome the might of the Republican establishment, the special interests who dominate the Capitol and a longtime politician determined to tar his character.
Scott’s win bears witness to his personal wealth — he spent at least $50 million of it on the campaign — as well as the thirst for political change in the Republican Party of Florida, which has been rocked by scandal and whose leaders worked to stop him cold.
“This is a man who took on the entire establishment and what he had was the people,” said Arlene DiBenigno, Scott’s political director. “We didn’t have a traditional campaign. We had a campaign of people who were tired of the traditional establishment. They are tired of the same old thing.”
The race was in doubt as late as 11 p.m., in large part because McCollum was beating Scott by a 2-1 margin in Miami-Dade — the biggest Republican County in the state. But even that advantage wasn’t enough, and with 90 percent of the statewide vote reported, the Associated Press projected that Scott had enough votes to win.
In what looked like a protest vote against Scott and McCollum, little-known third-party candidate Mike McCalister was receiving one of every 10 votes — far more than any poll had anticipated.
Scott, a 57-year-old Naples resident, burst on the scene in April with the first of many advertising blitzes, and cut a distinctive figure on TV with his bald head and piercing blue eyes. But he refused to debate McCollum on live statewide TV, dismissed the ritual of editorial board interviews, and repeatedly refused to make public a deposition he gave in a civil case six days before announcing his campaign.
Scott also deftly and firmly planted a foothold on McCollum’s right by aggressively supporting the Arizona law getting tough on illegal immigrants, and he relentlessly hammered McCollum as a “desperate career politician,” a message that resonated at the polls Tuesday.
With the state party chairman often by McCollum’s side, the longtime politician leveraged his relationships with the incoming House and Senate leaders, who dumped millions into a smear campaign that revolved around a record $1.7 billion Medicare fraud fine ultimately paid out by the Columbia/HCA hospital chain that Scott founded.
In the end, though, Scott’s campaign said he was winning because he successfully branded himself as the “jobs’’ candidate — the man whose campaign had the slogan ‘‘Let’s Get to Work.” They say that message will resonate in the general election just as it did Tuesday night in the primary.
Scott will face Democrat Alex Sink and independent Lawton “Bud’’ Chiles in November. Sink easily defeated little-known challenger Brian Moore in the Democratic primary.
Scott is the opponent Democrats want in November. The race for the governor’s mansion has major national implications, with both parties eager to claim power heading into 2012, when all congressional and legislative district lines are redrawn and the next presidential election is held.
But Scott’s victory is a shock to the state’s political system, and threatens to tear apart the fabric of the Republican Party already reeling from the indictment of former party chairman Jim Greer and defection of a once-immensely popular governor. With the level of invective so high in recent weeks, it won’t be easy for Republicans to mend fences, and the general election is only 70 days away.
As the evening wore on, the mood turned grim at McCollum headquarters at a Hilton in Altamonte Springs, just north of Orlando. The candidate and his wife, Ingrid, were sequestered in an eighth-floor suite watching returns. The lobby bar, filled with hopeful lobbyists earlier, was quiet.
At the polls, rank-and-file Republican voters seemed sharply divided over whether to cast their lot with Scott, the untested outsider, or the tried-and-true McCollum who also wears the mantle of the career politician.
Scott spent $40 million in an advertising arsenal the likes of which have never been seen before in Florida. McCollum battled back mightily with more than $14 million in hard-hitting ads financed by an array of businesses and special interests who make up the framework of the Republican establishment in Florida.
The race was largely a televised air war from start to finish, with Scott and McCollum pummeling each other across the airwaves. They never debated live on statewide television, and their battle created a civil war in the Republican Party between the insider, McCollum, and the outsider, Scott.
Voting was light across much of the state Tuesday, where steady rainfall and the incessant drumbeat of negative ads likely combined to tamp down turnout. But some voters were eager to embrace Scott’s message of change.
“He’s a fresh start,” said Kenneth Sprayberry, 73, a retired BellSouth manager who voted for Scott in Pompano Beach. “McCollum has been there — he has done some things I don’t agree with, switching back and forth on immigration laws. He’s been there long enough.”
McCollum, 66, the state attorney general and former 10-term member of Congress, was viewed as highly vulnerable in a year in which career politicians are widely viewed with disdain. But with the help of a massive infusion of money from business interests with political agendas in Tallahassee, he transformed the race into a referendum on Scott’s integrity.
“Who is Rick Scott?” McCollum asked of his rival in their only live TV debate in Tampa, three weeks ago on WTVT-Channel 13.
McCollum’s defeat likely put an end to a venerable career in Florida politics, because it was his third statewide defeat, a setback that most political experts say cannot be overcome. After serving for 20 years in Congress, McCollum lost U.S. Senate races in 2000 and 2004 before bouncing back to win the attorney general’s post in 2006.
As McCollum supporters slinked away from his Altamonte Springs hotel, Scott supporters at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina began to swell and whoop it up.
“He’s winning for a simple reason: His message appealed to Floridians to people who want a change ... people who want opportunities,” Karen Bowling, CEO of Solantic, Scott’s chain of walk-in clinics.