Politics & Government

Rick Scott ticked off the NRA after Parkland. That could help him.

A Facebook page hyping a “big announcement” from Gov. Rick Scott was filled with encouragement for a challenge against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, but a stream of anger ran through the comments.

"Sorry, Governor Scott. You blew it when you signed the anti-gun legislation into law. Will not be voting for you,” one person wrote. Another compared him to Democrat Charlie Crist. A third fumed, “Shouldn’t have gone against Americans with your knee jerk pandering to the gun grabbers.”

Scott’s embrace of Florida’s first gun restrictions in decades has infuriated the gun lobby and its fiercely loyal lieutenants.

Now the National Rifle Association, already on the defensive in Washington and across the country, faces a conundrum in a nationally watched election that could decide the balance of power in the Senate: Let Scott slide or punish a governor who achieved the group’s A-plus rating?

If Scott escapes attacks after weakening gun rights, other Republicans may feel emboldened in a time of soaring public support for solutions to Parkland and other mass shootings.

“It has always been our practice to hold public officials accountable for their actions that impact law-abiding firearms owners and their Second Amendment rights. Nothing has changed,” said Marion Hammer, the NRA’s Florida lobbyist who, pre-Parkland, had achieved a legendary reputation for her control over the agenda in Tallahassee.

Hammer declined to comment further.

NRA Marion Hammer 3
NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer returns to her seat after speaking in the Senate Rules Committee meeting on gun safety in the Knott Building at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Feb 26, 2018. Mark Wallheiser AP

“She is very much, 'You’re with us or you die,’ ” said Robert Spitzer, an expert on gun politics and chairman of the political science department at SUNY Cortland in New York. “But Scott’s well positioned. It’s certainly helpful to his campaign because he can say that he’s not completely in the thrall of the NRA.

“It’s a pretty clear message that it’s possible to weave a path that amounts to expressing support for gun rights but also some gun measures, even if they are limited.”

Part of the lesson, Spitzer added, “is that the NRA’s bark is worse than its bite. It’s certainly an influential group. But the idea they can just sort of wiggle their finger and make things happen magically in politics, it really isn’t like that. There are many other candidates who have sided with them then parted ways and lived to tell the story.”

Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey was an A+ rated NRA darling during his 2010 campaign, the group spending $1.5 million to help him get elected. But a few years later, after the Sandy Hook tragedy, he sponsored bipartisan legislation to expand background checks. It did not pass and the NRA turned on Toomey, but he still won re-election in 2016.

“You can do the right thing and you’ll be fine,” Toomey said in an interview about the climate Scott now faces. “In his state, like mine, a majority of voters feel very strongly about the Second Amendment, as do I, and these folks voted for me. I commend him for being willing to stand up.”

Despite all the social media noise, the legislation just might help the Republican governor win a seat in the Senate.

NRA fallout

The law Scott signed last month raised the age to buy a gun in Florida from 18 to 21 with a three-day waiting period. The NRA filed suit immediately. In public comments, Hammer included Scott among “turncoat Republicans” who “caved to bullying and coercion” by passing the changes in response to the shooting at a high school in Parkland that killed 17 people on Feb. 14.

Four years ago, Hammer praised Scott for his “historic” signing of five pro-gun bills.

Florida has long been at the vanguard of NRA-backed policies, including the controversial “stand your ground” law. But the national movement spurred by Parkland, with massive rallies in Washington and cities coast to coast, led to action from state and local governments and companies such as Dick’s Sporting Goods to end some gun sales.

It came just as Scott was preparing to run against Nelson, and Scott’s critics say his change of heart is all about politics. Scott showed no such initiative after the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando or an attack early last year at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

“The fact that Rick Scott in this politically craven way sees opportunity in accommodation with our side is an indication of the weakness of the NRA,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of a gun safety group started by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords. “But elections are about choices. Bill Nelson has had the courage throughout his tenure to do the right thing, to vote for gun safety, while Rick Scott was doing the exact opposite, while he was embracing the NRA.”

Nelson, who likes to tell audiences he’s been a lifelong hunter, charges that Scott “will say and do anything to try and get elected. He highlights an NRA-backed provision of the new law that calls for arming school personnel, though it would not apply to many teachers and school districts have largely said they would not participate in the optional program. (Scott opposed arming teachers but said he had to compromise.)

On raising the purchase age and adding the three-day waiting period, the Democrat said they were “steps in the right direction” but stressed that stricter measures are needed, including universal background checks and limiting large-capacity magazine clips. Nelson also wants to ban assault-style weapons.

For Scott, being under attack from the NRA could attract votes from independents and moderate voters who are more inclined to favor gun restrictions. Scott also has the support of some families of the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who stood with him at his Capitol office in Tallahassee on March 23 as he signed the legislation. (Others, particularly Douglas students, say the legislation fell well short.)

Scott can avoid the weight of the NRA because he doesn’t face a serious primary challenger, will have no trouble raising money and is not likely to face an exodus of Republican voters over the gun issue.

Republican critics

McCoy Anderson, a 53-year-old Republican Realtor from Gainesville, left a critical message on Scott’s Facebook page and said in an interview that he objects to raising the purchase age.

“If you can’t buy a gun until you’re 21, you shouldn’t be able to vote until you’re 21,” Anderson said. He hopes a Republican challenger steps up, but that if his choice is between Scott and Nelson, he’d pick the “lesser of two evils.”

That illustrates the box the NRA is in.

The organization is unlikely to mount a full-throated attack on Scott, though it could withhold formal support. A membership drive mailer that reached homes across the state last week mentioned “anti-gun politicians” but did not say anything specific about Florida.

The showdown with Nelson is expected to be wildly expensive and extremely close. Scott won two races for governor by about 1 percentage point in Republican wave elections against underfunded Democratic opponents.

Four years ago, against Charlie Crist, Scott won 54 of 67 counties. Some of Scott’s most lopsided victory margins were in counties such as Bay, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa in the Florida Panhandle. Even there, in the most conservative region of the state, where opposition to gun restrictions could be strongest, Scott is unlikely to face a political backlash.

Rep. Brad Drake, a Walton County Republican and an A+ NRA-rated lawmaker who voted against the gun bill, said: “I’m going to strongly support Rick Scott. I agree with him on almost every issue. Once in a while we disagree, but it’s never personal. He’s very conscientious.”

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, one of the NRA’s strongest allies in the Legislature, also voted against the gun bill, but said he has no quarrel with Scott.

“I view people based on their overall competence and effectiveness, and he’s A+ in my book. You’re never going to agree 100 percent of the time,” said Baxley, who represents The Villages, home to a vital bloc of Republican voters in statewide elections.

“It may give pause to some people who view the Second Amendment as a litmus test,” Baxley said. “But compared to the record of Sen. Nelson on the issue, the contrast is huge.”

Many are maneuvering

Scott joins a host of other politicians who are finding daylight with the hard line of the NRA — out west, in states such as Montana, some Democrats are shifting as well — and it comes as Republicans face a tough midterm election climate.

Dan Eberhart, an energy executive and major conservative donor, recently held up Scott as an example of candidates needing to appeal to suburban voters and doing so by standing up to the NRA. “Republicans are going to have to move a little to get 51 percent-plus in elections, and the NRA will have to deal with it,” Eberhart told The New York Times. “The NRA is really out of step with suburban GOP voters.”

Scott hasn’t brought up guns on the campaign trail but Nelson will make it an issue, as will a flood of outside groups trying to paint Scott as an opportunist.

“I’m proud of the legislation we passed,” Scott told the Tampa Bay Times after a stop in Tampa on Tuesday. “It was horrible what happened at Parkland. If you sit down with those families, the images, you can’t imagine.”

Why not act after 49 people were gunned down in Orlando? “Well, of course, remember that was a terrorist attack,” Scott said, adding that he sought funding for counterterrorism agents.

He said he’s ready to bring “common-sense solutions to D.C.,” where legislation to raise the purchase age for guns, as well as other restrictions, has been introduced but is unlikely to move before the election, if at all. At the same time, NRA initiatives such as the right for people to carry concealed weapons across states lines is stagnant.

“In the national polling for the first time in 24 years, the sentiment is tilted more toward gun control than not,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which moved the Florida Senate race from “lean Democrat” to “toss-up.” “The NRA’s lobbying mission is you don’t give an inch because if you give an inch then you give two. But they might find there are more and more Republicans willing to give an inch.”

Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam C. Smith and Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report.