Bill Cotterell: Democratic back-benchers eyeing challenge to U.S. Sen. Rick Scott

Florida Democrats are casting about for a well-known challenger to what looks like Scott’s cruise-control coast to a second term in Washington, our Capitol Columnist writes.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) speaks to reporters on his way to a classified all-Senate briefing on Artificial Intelligence at the U.S. Capitol on July 11, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) speaks to reporters on his way to a classified all-Senate briefing on Artificial Intelligence at the U.S. Capitol on July 11, 2023 in Washington, DC. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As catchy campaign slogans go, “Wait a second… it’ll come to you” probably isn’t something most candidates would put on bumper stickers and yard signs.

But that’s what the Florida Democratic Party seems stuck with, in trying to topple U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.

The once-dominant party — the political heirs of Reubin Askew, Claude Pepper and Bob Graham — is now casting about for somebody, anybody, who might make a respectable runner-up in what looks like Scott’s cruise-control coast to a second term in Washington.

Recent columns by Bill Cotterell 

It’s like those old American Express “Do you know me?” commercials with third-tier celebrities of yesteryear making a virtue out of obscurity. But for the current Democratic field, obscurity would be an upgrade.

Former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson has filed papers to run against Scott. Give it a second, it’ll come to you — oh, yeah, Grayson used to be the most annoying liberal in Congress. 

Elected from Orlando in 2008, he lost to Rep. Dan Webster two years later and, after a brief comeback, Grayson ran for the Senate in 2016 but lost the Democratic nomination to ex-Rep. Patrick Murphy, who went on to lose to Sen. Marco Rubio.

Grayson was so disliked within his own party, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he had “no moral compass” and urged Floridians not to nominate him. 

Well, he’s back.

Among unannounced-but-potential Democrats is another former member of Congress, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who is said to have the backing of current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. She lost her House seat to Rep. Carlos Gimenez in 2020, but that’s hardly disqualifying — especially in a party that considers losing more a right of passage than rejection.

Phil Ehr, a 26-year Navy veteran who lost a congressional race to Rep. Matt Gaetz out in the far Panhandle in 2020, recently announced his Senate candidacy. In an announcement video, Ehr slammed Scott as a GOP extremist and cited the $1.7 billion in federal fraud penalties paid by Scott’s former hospital corporation — but that hasn’t worked for Democrats in Scott’s three previous statewide campaigns.

State House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell is said to be considering a statewide bid. She has been a hard-working and highly visible fighter for the Democrats in the Legislature, but Florida has never elected a Black candidate to statewide office (except a Supreme Court justice, long ago.)

Outnumbered by supermajorities in both chambers and combating a governor with near-dictatorial sway over everything that moves in Tallahassee, being Democratic leader of the Florida House is like batting clean-up for the 1962 Mets. Do everything right and you still lose, lopsidedly.

Then there’s Jennifer Jenkins, a Brevard County school board member who’s relatively new, but bravely fought the Republican culture wars in education. She got a prominent speaking spot at the Democrats’ recent “Leadership Blue” gala in Miami Beach and told the Miami Herald she is looking at a Senate race.

But making the leap from a school board or the back benches of the Legislature to the U.S. Senate would seem an impossible dream under the best of conditions. And these are the worst of times for Florida Democrats.

They’re outnumbered by well over a half-million in voter registration. They derive far too much encouragement out of winning the Jacksonville mayoral race, which would have seemed routine in the old days. The national party is desperate to hold its tiny majority in the Senate, so it’s unlikely to divert money from more winnable states and bet on solidly red Florida. And Scott has a track record of winning, if narrowly, against formidable challengers.

He goofed last year with a 12-point plan which included a no-nonsense review of all federal spending every five years. Democrats warned that this would jeopardize Social Security and Medicare — two untouchables in a state where about one in five voters was born when Roosevelt was president — but Scott backed off that part of his already-dormant blueprint.

Even granting the absurd premise that Congress would ever put Social Security and Medicare on the block for review, there can be no doubt that both programs would be renewed instantly. Oh, maybe a couple kooks might vote against them, but Rick Scott — or any Florida politician — would vote to make Fidel Castro’s birthday a national holiday before he’d try to take money and medicine away from old people.

In two terms as governor and one in the U.S. Senate, Scott has beaten two state Cabinet officers, a former governor and an incumbent senator. Outside forces were different in each race, but his advantages of money and Republican momentum always left little doubt of his eventual victory.

To mount a major challenge to Scott, the first thing the Democrats need now is a candidate who doesn’t make most voters say, “Uh…who?”

Bill Cotterell is a retired capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com

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