There's a reasonable case to be made that Florida will end up determining the Republican presidential winner. The idea is that the first four contests next year will be split between Rick Perry (Iowa and South Carolina) and Mitt Romney (New Hampshire and Nevada), making Florida's primary the rubber match. And, at least for now, Romney believes he's found the magic argument to win over Sunshine State Republicans: Electability.
Florida will host the latest GOP debate tonight, and Romney has campaigned around the state this week touting his own (supposed) ability to attract women, independents and Democrats in a general election and suggesting that Perry's "disconcerting" Social Security rhetoric would limit his appeal. Tim Pawlenty, the one-time GOP candidate who endorsed Romney recently, used an Op-Ed today to sum up the basic Romney message to Republicans in four words: "We have to win." The newest poll from Florida, released by Quinnipiac this morning, seems to bolster the Romney case. In head-to-head contests with President Obama, Romney leads by seven points, 47 to 40 percent, while Perry trails by two. That finding mirrors what several other recent national polls have found.
But it's funny that Romney should be making this argument in Florida, because it was just a year ago that the state's Republicans heard a remarkably similar message when they staged what was a wild gubernatorial primary. That contest, between then-Attorney General Bill McCollum and a self-funding hospital executive named Rick Scott, forced Florida Republicans to weigh their desire for ideological purity against clear evidence that the "pure" candidate would have serious trouble winning in the fall. The decision they made -- and the consequences it did (and didn't) have in the fall -- may tell us something about where the 2012 election is heading.
At first, Scott wasn't supposed to have a prayer. McCollum, a long-serving congressman who had won the A.G.'s post in 2006, was well-known and enjoyed broad support among the party establishment. He wasn't an ideological firebrand, but he was also no moderate -- his platform, like his old House voting record, was very conservative. McCollum looked like a solid GOP candidate, broadly acceptable to the party's base but also non-threatening to general election voters, who were ready to vote Republican, given the strongly anti-Obama climate of 2010.
But Scott gained surprising traction with the GOP's restive base, which appreciated the leading role he'd played in fighting Obama's healthcare plan. (He had used millions of his own money to form "Conservatives for Patients Rights" and was a frequent cable news guest as Obama's plan slowly moved toward enactment.) Scott's Tea Party platform, outsider status, business credentials, and ability to spend freely pushed him into contention in the GOP race -- at which point the GOP establishment very nervous, and for good reason.
The problem was that Scott had some serious baggage: The for-profit hospital chain he'd once run, Columbia/HCA, had perpetrated the largest Medicare fraud in history on his watch, which ended with the company paying $1.7 billion in fines and pleading guilty to 14 felonies. (Needless to say, Scott was also forced to resign.) This, Republican concluded, was exactly the kind of headache that would give cold feet to those general election swing voters who badly wanted to vote Republican.
With Scott pulling into the lead and the August primary nearing, McCollum and his allies hit back hard, making the case that a vote for Scott in the primary was as good as a vote for Democrat Alex Sink in the fall. Haley Barbour, who was then heading up the Republican Governors Association, even took the very unusual step of publicly rebuking Scott just days before the primary. And polls bolstered the electability argument: A Mason-Dixon survey showed McCollum trailing Sink in a head-to-head contest by two points -- and Scott trailing her by 16.
And yet, Republican voters still decided to take a chance. When the votes were counted on primary night, Scott prevailed by three points, a 38,000-vote margin. It was a sign of how angry the GOP base was in general, but also how distrustful it was of its own establishment. Scott may have been a far-right candidate, but McCollum was not exactly the second coming of Nelson Rockefeller. On paper, his positions should have been very appealing to the GOP base, and he moved even farther to the right as Scott began picking up steam.
What's even more interesting is what happened next. Initially, general election polls found that, as expected, Scott's nomination was a clear boost for Sink. An early September poll put her seven points ahead of Scott (by this point, an independent candidate who had been attracting sizable support over the summer had dropped out), with independents and self-described moderates breaking her way decisively. But then....she still lost. The margin was razor-thin -- much closer than it should have been given how horribly other Florida Democrats ended up doing, and almost certainly much closer than it would have been had McCollum been the candidate. But Scott still ended up with 60,000 more votes, a margin of one point.
When the margin is so narrow, it's possible to point to any number of factors as being decisive. For instance, a late-campaign controversy over Sink's receipt of a text message during a debate did real damage to her credibility -- one of her chief assets in the race against Scott -- and distracted from her own efforts to make the race about her opponent and his baggage. But the big, overriding factor in Scott's win was simply the strong, overriding desire of swing voters to vote against Democrats in 2010. Scott won in spite of himself.
It's a story worth keeping in mind now that Florida Republicans may again be called upon to decide between Tea Party purity and electability. The party base seems to be in the same place now as it was in 2010, angry and distrustful of the GOP establishment. So are swing voters, meaning that a Republican nominee who might not ordinarily be electable might just be able to sneak through and end up in the White House. The question really may be: Do Florida Republicans realize how lucky Scott got in '10 -- or has the simple fact that he ended up emboldened them to try the same thing in '12?