Lately it's been stormy in the Sunshine State. First, the Republican contest for U.S. Senate resulted in Gov. Charlie Crist leaving the party. While that race has gotten most of the national attention, Florida's GOP primary for governor has become one of the nastiest in the country.
Tomorrow's primary is a match-up between Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a former ten-term congressman, and health care millionaire Rick Scott. To say there is no love lost between these two men would be an understatement. Scott has maintained that McCollum "is clearly abusing his power and he will do anything to win the race so he can hang on to his power" and has even labeled him "the Tonya Harding of Florida politics."
While McCollum hasn't hit anyone in the knee with a police baton, he hasn't been shy about taking a few swings at Scott's business record. Scott was CEO of Columbia/HCA until 1997, when he resigned amidst an FBI probe that led to the company being fined a record $1.7 billion for Medicare fraud. Federal agents raided 33 Columbia hospitals and offices in six states.
Scott wasn't directly implicated in any wrongdoing. He released a statement saying, "An army of federal investigators spent seven years examining every aspect of this case. If they found any merit in these allegations... they would have certainly charged me, or at the very least questioned me -- neither of which ever happened.'' But eventually, Scott's argument that he didn't know what was going on at the company he ran began to undermine the reputation for executive competence on which he was basing his campaign.
McCollum has taken a few hits himself. Scott has aggressively tied him to former Florida GOP head Jim Greer, who was arrested and charged with six felonies -- including fraud, theft, and money laundering -- earlier this year. McCollum backed Greer's re-election as state party chairman; Greer in turn served on the finance team for McCollum's gubernatorial campaign. Scott has joined with Democrats in pounding McCollum for the Florida attorney general's role in the Greer investigation.
Both men are running as staunch conservatives. McCollum is a cerebral policy wonk who was a firm Reaganite in the House. As attorney general, he has been a leader in a multi-state lawsuit to overturn the health care individual mandate. Scott rose to statewide prominence as the founder and leader of Conservatives for Patients Rights, an anti-Obamacare group.
That hasn't prevented ideological infighting, however. Both candidates are pro-life, but McCollum has highlighted the fact that some Columbia/HCA hospitals performed elective abortions. Scott's camp has similarly taken aim at McCollum's pro-life bona fies, especially as concerns embryonic stem-cell research. "So Bill McCollum takes campaign contributions from lobbyists for Planned Parenthood yet now attacks about abortion," Scott campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said to reporters in response to one McCollum mailing. "What hypocrisy." McCollum has also been criticized for supporting Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign.
Immigration has also emerged as a point of contention. When Arizona began debating its controversial law cracking down on illegal immigrants, McCollum was quoted as saying, "I don't think Florida should enact laws like this -- quite that far out." McCollum later supported the Arizona law, but argues that he only did so once the language curbing racial profiling was tightened. Scott, an Arizona law backer, has countered that this is a flip-flop.
Upon his entry into the race, Scott overtook McCollum as the frontrunner -- thanks in part to the $16 million the businessman spent on campaign ads contrasting his outsider status with McCollum's connections to the state party hierarchy. But McCollum has been able to fight back, with late polls showing him reclaiming the lead. Jeff Greene, the billionaire running for Florida's Democratic senatorial nomination, has seen a rise and fall similar to Scott's.
"Money can only go so far," Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, told Reuters. "It made two guys nobody ever heard of frontrunners. It can't necessarily get you over the top." The latest Quinnipiac poll has McCollum leading 44 percent to 35 percent, a 12-point jump from the last survey. But the primary beneficiary of the $50 million Republican ad war may be likely Democratic nominee Alex Sink, who edges both McCollum and Scott in recent polling despite the independent candidacy of Lawton "Bud" Chiles.
Whatever happens Tuesday, party unity will be sorely tested in a state where Republicans once believed they were on the upswing.
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