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Rick Scott became the Senate GOP’s election general, then went to war

With an aggressive fundraising effort and a controversial policy plan, the senator from Florida has been upsetting colleagues. He’s okay with that.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) departs after a final vote for the week on Capitol Hill on March 3. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida has been publicly dressed down by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, privately rebuked by his colleagues and repeatedly accused of running the National Republican Senatorial Committee in a way that benefits his own future over the candidates he was hired to get elected.

He has directed a sizable share of his fundraising as NRSC chair to his own accounts, while shifting digital revenue away from Senate campaigns and buying ads promoting himself that look all but identical to spots he does for the national committee.

But during the seven weeks of turmoil since Scott dropped a provocative conservative policy bomb on an unsuspecting party — a plan that called for tax increases and expiration dates for all federal laws, including those establishing Social Security and Medicare — he has not once expressed regret. Instead, the former hospital chain CEO and two-term governor, the richest man in the Senate, argues that he owes his detractors nothing.

“My whole life has been people telling me that, you know, you’re doing it the wrong way. You can’t, you shouldn’t be doing this,” he said in a recent interview at NRSC headquarters. “I’ve been up here for three years. Do you know how many people have come to me and asked me, before they vote, what my opinion is on something and whether it’s good for my state? That would be zero.”

Barbs like these from the inner sanctum of GOP leadership toward his fellow senators and political operatives have cut unexpected fissures into what appears to be a banner election year for Republicans, who are a single seat away from majority control of the Senate. Private grumbling about how Scott has turned the NRSC into the “National Rick Scott Committee” has become widespread enough in some Republican circles that other jokes have been added. “All this, for 4 percent in Iowa,” is the punchline of one about the harm he could do to Republican fortunes in November in pursuit of national ambitions.

During a Feb. 28 meeting with Senate leadership in McConnell’s office, other senators brought articles that showed members being attacked for various parts of his plan, particularly the tax provision and another imposing term limits. They chastised him in round-robin fashion for the unnecessary headache he had created, said people familiar with the meeting, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Scott answered days later with a Wall Street Journal op-ed — “Why I’m Defying Beltway Cowardice” — and a March 31 speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Bring it on,” he said there.

Ambitious Senate campaign committee chiefs have used their position as a launchpad before. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) led the charge to retake the Senate in 1994, and he ran for president in 1996. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) won the Senate back in 2002 and became majority leader weeks later. But no one has created this sort of controversy in the job. Advisers say they see any battle with McConnell as good for him outside Washington, and they do not privately rule out Scott running for president. McConnell allies say the Republican from Kentucky typically has cultivated a strong relationship with NRSC staff — but this cycle is far more distant.

The White House, meanwhile, has latched on to Scott’s policy plan, describing it in a news release Monday as an effort to “increase taxes on the middle class” and a threat to the “sacred commitments” of Social Security and Medicare.

“We’ve got three words for him: Keep it up,” said David Bergstein, the communications director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has been highlighting the Scott plan as a way to scare voters. “No NRSC chair has done more for Senate Democrats than Rick Scott.”

Those close to Scott describe him as a man with few hobbies beyond work who wakes at 4:30 a.m. each morning and aims to be in bed by 9 p.m. He sticks closely to a minute-by-minute schedule and monitors his weight and calories closely — egg whites and fish are mainstays.

That data obsession extends to his office, where he asks how every part of the NRSC can be measured. He often asks staff members whether he can be making more fundraising calls. “Obsessed with raising money,” said one person who has worked closely with him.

By most measures, he has done well in a good Republican year. The committee had $33 million in cash on hand at the start of 2022, compared with $20 million at the same point in 2020 and $15 million in 2018.

But the fundraising has come with significant grumbling from fellow Republicans. High-dollar donors at some of Scott’s fundraising events, including in a swing through Florida in the summer of 2021, have been asked to give their first $10,800 to his campaign account and a separate leadership PAC, before anything goes to the NRSC, a departure from the practice of his predecessors who were less reliant on such fundraising vehicles. (Donors at these events could ask to have all their money go to the NRSC, aides said.)

Scott raised $6.6 million in 2021 for this high-dollar joint fundraising account, the Rick Scott Victory Fund, and diverted about 25 percent of it, or $1.6 million, to accounts that fund his own ambitions, according to federal filings. The rest went to the NRSC. He is not up for reelection until 2024 and has said he is not running for president.

“He is doing it in a state where there is an incumbent senator who is in-cycle, sucking up donor money when he really doesn’t need it,” said one strategist upset with Scott’s approach. Sen. Marco Rubio (R) is facing reelection in Florida.

When it comes to small-dollar donors, Scott has sometimes blurred lines, as well. In a separate online effort, called Team Rick Scott, he raised money last year with appeals like, “I am asking you to help me and President Trump take back the Senate.” The money collected, however, was split between his campaign and his personal leadership PAC, with none going directly to the NRSC. (His leadership PAC, Lets Get to Work, did give $100,000 to the NRSC in 2021.)

A change to how the NRSC fundraises with incumbents has become another friction point. Under Scott’s predecessor, senators who signed fundraising emails with the committee or allowed their images to be used in NRSC digital ads were given 50 percent of the revenue and the names of the donors.

Under Scott, the committee has offered candidates 10 percent of the haul and the donor names, with the rest going to the NRSC. Scott advisers say the change prevents the committee from losing money on appeals that raise little money, thus strengthening the NRSC overall. But the change comes as other Republican efforts are trying to funnel more money directly to candidates, because they are able to get better pricing on television advertising than the party committees.

Scott is unapologetic about his methods, which he says ultimately serve the party’s interests. Regarding the donations directed first to his leadership PAC from Florida events, he said, “Those donors were my donors first.” The NRSC received $12 million from that state’s donors alone so far this cycle, compared with $9 million in the last two cycles combined, according to Scott advisers who credit his efforts for the shift.

Advisers also point out that Scott saves the committee money by paying for his own private plane travel to political events. Public filings show he made in-kind donations of more than $600,000 for plane travel in 2021. Scott, who was worth about $260 million in 2020, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, made most of his money as the former executive of Columbia/HCA. The for-profit hospital company paid $1.7 billion in federal fines in the early 2000s, after Medicare fraud and other wrongdoing was uncovered from when he ran the company.

“We don’t spend much time worrying about criticisms from anonymous Republican consultants who lost the Senate last cycle and who have gotten rich off maintaining the status quo,” NRSC communications director and Scott campaign spokesman Chris Hartline said in a statement. He dismissed the criticisms as “sour grapes” by strategists who “don’t get paid like they used to.”

Several of Scott’s advisers at the NRSC also work for his personal political efforts, including the top fundraiser Jenny Drucker and his lead consultants, OnMessage Inc. A partner from that firm has taken a leave to run the NRSC’s independent expenditure arm, and the firm is consulting for at least three Senate candidates in Republican primaries.

Even paid advertising can appear to overlap. Fundraising ads shot for the NRSC and his campaign are both made by OnMessage in the same style, using the direct-to-camera shots of Scott on a white background wearing a gingham dress shirt and his Navy baseball cap. (Scott enlisted to serve on a warship in the early 1970s before attending college.) Since Scott released his policy plan to “Rescue America,” his Senate campaign has reserved about $1 million in conservative cable ads to push the program, an adviser said.

McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, upbraided Scott publicly days after the plan was released, calling out the parts of it that would raise taxes and impose the five-year sunset on all federal laws. “That will not be part of the Republican Senate majority agenda,” he said.

The plan has 128 ideas, including requiring students to say the Pledge of Allegiance and ending imports from China and government policies “based on race or ethnicity.” It also supports a two-term limit on service in the Senate, a policy that if made law would ban senators such as Rubio, Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) from seeking another term this year.

Scott explains his decision to release the plan in the middle of an election year as an outgrowth of his “primary responsibility” to the voters of Florida.

“In this job, I’m a fiduciary to the people of Florida, and that’s what I do,” he says. “They want somebody to have a plan to figure out how to change the country.”

His idea that “all Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game” has been the most controversial. If taken literally, it could lead to tax increases on more than half of households, including seniors, who do not currently pay federal income tax. But without admitting any change, Scott has since said he would exempt retirees and the working poor, and focus the tax increase on younger Americans who receive government assistance without holding jobs.

“If you have said something and it is not clear, saying ‘I stand by what I said’ is not a useful strategy,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, a critic of Scott’s tax idea. “The Russians have been doing better with their project than he has. It is just difficult to understand because he is a very smart guy who has governed very well.”

Other Republicans have been more forgiving. “I don’t agree with everything in the plan, but Rick is a good man,” former president Donald Trump said recently. Trump has been privately urging Scott and others to consider running for McConnell’s job as Senate Republican leader. (Scott said he is not running for the position.) But Trump suggested that had less to do with support for Scott than animus toward McConnell.

“I’d take Romney over McConnell,” Trump said of his nemesis Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “I think he’d do a better job, and I think Romney is a lowlife.”

Scott’s term as NRSC chair will ultimately be judged by the November election results, and the early indications suggest Republicans should have a strong year, with President Biden polling poorly nationwide amid rising concerns about inflation.

Scott said he is committed to letting the primary process play out in early states, declining as a policy to get involved in any open-seat races and even approaching incumbent races with some delicacy.

Last spring, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked Scott in a meeting for the committee to endorse her reelection campaign, an expected move by the NRSC, even though Trump opposes her because she voted to impeach him.

The NRSC responded with a spare, unsigned statement, released on the Friday night before Easter, that coolly said the committee “supports the reelection of Murkowski, just like others in her position. A person familiar with Murkowski’s campaign said her advisers had hoped for a much more effusive endorsement. “Rick Scott seems to care a lot more about his political future than the Senate incumbents he is supposed to be working for,” the person said.

Scott rejects this criticism, pointing out he suffered political pain when he announced his support for Murkowski in other television interviews.

“Let me tell you the other side of it,” he said. “I’ve got my butt kicked in my state, and I’ve been clear I support Lisa Murkowski.”

Scott released a more glowing, signed statement in January when Johnson announced his reelection campaign, praising Johnson as a “good friend and a fierce colleague.” Johnson has since returned the favor.

“From the perspective of a Republican Senator in cycle this election, I think Rick Scott is doing a fantastic job as NRSC Chair,” he wrote in an unrequested statement to The Post.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is also a fan. “Senator Scott has been an incredible partner,” she said.

In his recent public statements, Scott has shifted closer to Johnson’s and Trump’s more populist political rhetoric, which has come to dominate Republican primaries. Scott describes liberals as “tyrants” and “lunatics” who have “evil” designs for the country, and he refers to his Republican detractors as “Washington insiders.”

While his critics see him positioning himself for higher office, Scott argues that he remains true to who he has always been, as the child of a single mother who worked his way to wealth and power.

“People attacked me my whole life. You know, get in line,” Scott said in the interview, before raising his past in one of the military’s lowest enlisted ranks. “I was an E-1 in the Navy. Think how we get treated. This is way better than that.”

Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly said a meeting of senators occurred on Feb. 29; it occurred on Feb. 28. The article has been corrected.

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