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Rick Scott navigates Trump, winning back the Senate — and his own ambitions

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) speaks during February’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) speaks during February’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The silver bowl was small, but the symbolism was immense.

When Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) handed former president Donald Trump the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s first ever “Champion for Freedom Award” this month at Trump’s Palm Beach resort, it was a demonstration of Trump’s power inside the GOP, his importance to the party’s quest to win the Senate majority, and Scott’s own complicated role in between.

The 68-year-old former business executive and two-term governor rose to the key role of NRSC chairman just two years after winning a massively expensive and extremely close race to join the Senate — and four years before a presidential race he is widely seen to be eyeing.

Just months into his tenure, Scott has undertaken a rapid effort to reorient the party committee toward small-dollar digital fundraising, hired some of Trump’s top campaign operatives, made a controversial decision not to support favored candidates in key primaries, and placed himself at the center of much of the group’s communications — to the point that some GOP operatives have privately snickered that NRSC now stands for the “National Rick Scott Committee.”

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) told the Post that Republicans are focused on issues like immigration, reopening schools and restricting transgender athletes. (Video: Washington Post Live)

Scott has also assumed a role as an emissary from the Senate GOP leadership to Trump, who remains locked in a high-stakes feud with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Trump slashes at McConnell as he reiterates election falsehoods at Republican event

McConnell firmly rebuked the former president following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, prompting Trump to lash out on several occasions, including during a private speech this month to GOP donors. With the two most powerful men in the GOP at odds, Scott has taken steps to bridge the divide — including by lavishing Trump with the newfangled award.

Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and others weighed in Feb. 28 on the House-passed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

“I like to celebrate success,” he said, likening the prize to baubles he gave out as governor to prominent Floridians. “You should thank people, and when you’re the governor, people appreciate getting something in recognition for business success or entrepreneurial success or, you know, educational success.”

It remains to be seen whether Trump will help or hinder the GOP’s quest to retake control of the Senate, which now stands at a 50-50 split with Vice President Harris casting tiebreaking votes for Democrats.

While many Republicans doubt he can corral the former president, Scott is betting heavily that having Trump front and center will help drive GOP voters to the polls.

So far, Scott is quieting doubts on one important front — fundraising.

His vote to challenge the 2020 election results, cast early on the morning of Jan. 7 just hours after rioters were cleared from the Capitol, prompted predictions that some donors would keep their distance from Scott and the committee he leads. But the NRSC recently reported raising $23.1 million in the first quarter and retiring its entire post-election debt, keeping the group well ahead of its cash pace for recent election cycles.

While final numbers have not been disclosed, Scott is touting efforts to beef up the NRSC’s digital fundraising, building a larger network of small-dollar donors who can give repeatedly over the course of a campaign. To that end, Scott has hired two of the Trump campaign’s top digital fundraising officials, and Trump’s former digital director, Gary Coby, is consulting with the committee, a spokesman said.

To induce those donors to give and give again, Scott has started recording a series of direct-to-camera videos — wearing his signature Navy ball cap, button-down shirt and chinos — delivering rapid-fire political patter in the style of an infomercial pitchman.

“Rick Scott here. As chairman of the NRSC, I want to talk frankly about an urgent matter,” he says in a spot focused on Democratic voting legislation. “Don’t be intimidated by the Democrats’ big lies.”

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While the flurry of social media ads keeps Scott’s face in front of small donors, the NRSC post also gives Scott a perch to cultivate larger ones — and has kept him in the national conversation among a crowded field of potential GOP presidential candidates that includes several of his fellow senators and his successor as governor, Ron DeSantis.

A recent fundraising swing, for instance, took him to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he appeared alongside Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and the state GOP chairman, less than three years before Iowa hosts its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.

Scott said in an interview that he has no plans to run for president — never mind the ads he ran in Iowa early last year — and that his decision to seek the campaign post was made with an eye toward delivering for his constituents and building goodwill among his colleagues.

“I’m going to get more done if we have a majority than if we’re in a minority,” he said. “The other part of it is, is up here with other Republican senators, the fact that they know I’m working hard to help them get elected, you know, long term, that’s going to help me get some stuff done, too.”

Curt Anderson, Scott’s longtime political consultant, also brushed off the presidential chatter and said chairing a national party committee can be risky business. “If your goal is to run for president,” he said, “you’re better off doing your own thing.”

Anderson said he gave Scott multiple reasons not to pursue the NRSC post last year as he was deciding whether to do it. The fundraising, recruiting and travel are an immense time commitment, he pointed out, and it wasn’t shaping up to be an especially favorable year for Republicans, with many more GOP seats at stake than Democratic ones.

But Scott determined it would be worth the risk, Anderson said. “He’s good at it,” he said. “He doesn’t like to be bored, and he likes to use all 24 hours of the day.”

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While Scott’s tenacity has quieted some of the doubts inside the GOP ranks, there are still open concerns about how Scott’s interests as the leader of the party campaign committee and his interests as a potential presidential candidate might diverge.

No decision has raised quite as many eyebrows as his announcement that the NRSC will not engage in open Republican primaries ahead of the 2022 midterms — meaning it will not endorse or support candidates in at least 10 primaries in competitive states.

This has prompted fears that a well-funded party organ would stand on the sidelines as GOP voters nominate potentially toxic candidates who could lose to Democrats.

Strategists, for instance, are already concerned that former Missouri governor Eric Greitens — who resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations — could endanger what should be a safe Republican seat if he wins the nomination, and there are candidates in several other states who are also generating similar worries.

Putting the NRSC’s finger on the primary scales can backfire, exposing a favored candidate to attacks for being in thrall to party insiders, Scott’s allies note. But other Republicans point out it could be even more politically hazardous in the long run to the head of the party organ that does the meddling, especially if it is done in opposition to Trump, who after his electoral defeat still remains the most popular figure with the party’s base of voters.

“At the end of the day, if Eric Greitens is neck and neck with another candidate in Missouri, as chairman of the Senatorial Committee, he can’t pretend like that’s not happening,” said one Republican operative involved in Senate campaigns who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the party committee.

Scott insisted his policy will stand.

“We’re not going to participate,” he said. “I think the public will pick the right candidate, and it’ll be somebody that can get through the general election.”

Most Republicans are expecting the Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-linked super PAC that can accept unlimited checks from large donors and is likely to spend even more on advertising than the NRSC in 2022, to pick up any slack in contentious primaries.

While Scott’s decision to curry Trump’s favor might appear to put him at odds with McConnell, several Republicans familiar with their relationship said that was not the case — the two senators enjoy a positive working relationship and speak frequently.

Still, tensions have surfaced inside the Senate GOP — such as at a briefing Scott led at NRSC headquarters late last month for 2022 incumbents. After delivering a presentation on the political landscape, Scott asked the senators in attendance: Is there anything I can do for you?

According to two people familiar with the meeting, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a moderate who voted to impeach Trump earlier this year and who has been a frequent target of the former president, spoke up with a request: Could I please get an endorsement?

To those who recalled the exchange, it was an uncomfortable moment that placed Scott’s role as an advocate for his GOP colleagues in conflict with his role in courting Trump. Another person familiar with the episode played down its significance, noting that the committee is obligated under its rules to support incumbents, and that the committee does not typically issue endorsements for them, which are assumed. Murkowski’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The endorsement was issued the following week, though it was not sent directly to national reporters or posted on NRSC social media channels.

“She has been a powerful voice for Alaska’s interests,” said the endorsement, which was issued as an “NRSC Statement,” not one from Scott. “We are laser focused on taking back the Senate majority and stopping the crazy socialist agenda of the Democrats.”

Asked about the episode, Scott said he is backing his colleagues without qualification, and he said he has asked Trump to endorse them all. “My responsibility is to help incumbent senators win and, when people get through primaries, help them win,” he said. “And that’s what I think about the whole time.”

Trump so far has endorsed seven 2022 Republican incumbents and encouraged an eighth, Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.), to seek reelection. But he has also indicated he wants to see GOP challengers take on Murkowski and John Thune (S.D.) and has yet to deliver nods for John Hoeven (N.D.), James Lankford (Okla.), Mike Lee (Utah) or Todd C. Young (Ind.), who all voted to certify the results of the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, the NRSC has taken an aggressive approach early in the midterm cycle, delivering early ad attacks on several vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Scott has become a fixture at weekly Senate Republican lunches, where he presents colleagues with poll-tested messaging to counter the Biden administration’s governing agenda and data showing the priorities of the GOP base.

So far, that vigor has quieted any concerns about his personal ambitions.

“If he is interested in something else politically, nothing would help him more than getting the majority back,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate leadership.