TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For Florida’s Republican governor, the path to victory in two close statewide elections over the past eight years was simple: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”
That may have all changed more than two weeks ago when 17 people were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Suddenly Rick Scott, who is expected to mount a campaign to oust incumbent Democrat U.S. Bill Nelson, is embroiled in a fierce debate over gun control that has seen the governor split with President Donald Trump and some members of his own party over what should be done to prevent another mass shooting.
The escalated sniping between Nelson and Scott may presage a heated campaign in a swing state that twice supported President Barack Obama but then backed Trump.
Nelson mocked Scott, saying he lacked “guts” for skipping an emotionally charged town hall forum attended by survivors and family members of those killed at the Parkland school. He also criticized Scott because the state had offered financial incentives to gun manufacturers.
Scott snapped back at Nelson, saying he had failed to pass any substantial gun measures during his three terms in office.
“Bill Nelson is a career politician; he talks a lot and does nothing,” Scott said last week. “He’s never done anything on gun safety, or school safety and he’s done nothing on gun control.”
Scott made those remarks the same day he came out with a $500 million proposal to bolster school-safety programs, primarily through the use of school resource officers who work for local law-enforcement agencies. The governor, who in the past has gotten top marks from the National Rifle Association for supporting a long line of gun-rights measures, also called for raising the minimum age to purchase any type of gun.
Nelson has lambasted Scott’s proposal, saying it doesn’t include “commonsense” changes such as universal background checks or a ban of the types of assault rifles used in the Parkland shooting.
“He’s afraid of the NRA,” Nelson said. “The commonsense solution is universal background checks. He won’t touch that. The commonsense solution is to get the assault rifles off the streets. He won’t touch that.”
Right now polls suggest voters in Florida are on Nelson’s side. A poll by Quinnipiac University, which was done more than a week after the shootings in Parkland, said 62 percent support a nationwide ban on “assault weapons” and 96 percent support background checks on all gun buyers. Voters were nearly evenly split on Scott’s handling of the issue of gun violence. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
The question is whether that will change by November.
“Getting guns out of the hands of people who should not have them in the first place is always going to be an issue in any election,” said Republican Party of Florida chairman and state legislator Blaise Ingoglia. “What I can say is that I do not know how the electorate is going to respond to that nine months from now.”
Nelson said that in the past he would have predicted that public interest would subside by election day, but this time, he predicts the “determination” of students agitating for change is “going to spill over.”
In each of his two elections for governor, Scott, a businessman before he became governor, spent millions of his own money and still barely edged out Democratic candidates. Trump has urged him to challenge Nelson, but so far, he hasn’t said whether he’ll run.
In 2010, he ran as part of the tea party movement, espousing a hard line on immigration in the GOP primary while touting his plans to turn around the state’s economy. Four years later Scott won again, but ahead of his re-election he supported measures opposed by some conservatives, including extending in-state tuition rates to the children of immigrants living illegally in the country. And he expressed last-minute support for expanding Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul — something he previously had opposed.
Before the shootings at Parkland, Scott had not been in favor of any gun-purchase restrictions. Democrats contend his change of heart has been spurred by the election. His supporters say not so fast.
“Not every decision is determined by whether you are running for office; the guy does have principles,” said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who has been an ally of both Scott and Trump.
Ahead of any election, Scott has a more immediate problem: Persuading the GOP-controlled Legislature to back his proposals with just days left in the annual session.
Despite Scott’s opposition, House and Senate Republicans are backing a “marshal” plan that calls for trained teachers to be armed. Some Democrats are threatening to vote against the bills because of the proposal. That could doom its passage, because some Republicans are opposed to a few of the measures’ proposed gun restrictions, such as raising the minimum purchasing age.
Scott won’t say whether he’ll veto the bill if it includes the plan.
“They know my position,” he said. “I don’t believe we should be arming teachers.”