After eight years as governor of Florida and a winning campaign for the Senate, Republican Rick Scott has plenty to say about his blueprint for appealing to Hispanic voters in the nation’s largest swing state.
“I think I got elected to get things done. I didn’t get elected because I’m going to be, you know, giving the fiery speeches and being in the news every day,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Scott’s posture contrasts with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who served notice on the eve of joining Congress that he would call out Trump as he sees fit. But Scott won’t be able to deflect questions about the president for long. As a new senator, he will face votes that will force him to side with or against Trump.
For years, Scott sought to chart his own path with Hispanic voters. But soon, he will be at the epicenter of an explosive national fight over border security that could reshape their views of him. According to Scott’s own polling, about half of the Latino voters in Florida’s Senate election have an unfavorable view of Trump.
Scott will join the Senate on Tuesday, after serving out his full term as governor. He arrives at a moment when the partial government shutdown enters its third week, as Trump has refused to sign a spending bill that does not fund a wall that he repeatedly vowed would be financed by Mexico.
During the interview Friday in a temporary office, Scott said the shutdown was regrettable. But he offered no specific solution for breaking the impasse and would not say whether he agreed with Trump’s position.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t get government open and fund border security,” Scott said. He blamed Trump, the House and the Senate for the shutdown.
Asked whether he thought a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border was a good idea, Scott replied, “The way I would think about it is you have to have a secure border. Whether it’s a wall, or whether it’s a fence, or whether it’s technology, whether it’s people, whatever it is, we ought to be doing it.”
Pressed again on whether a secure border means a wall, Scott said it was best to rely on Homeland Security officials to determine what was necessary to secure the border. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said last week, “Now more than ever we need the wall.”
Scott defeated Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in an expensive and competitive contest that came down to a recount in a purple state that figures to be crucial in the 2020 presidential election.
Latino voter registration has grown in Florida in recent years, according to the Pew Research Center — putting a premium on GOP outreach.
Scott invested in Spanish-language television ads in the midterm campaign, made eight trips to Puerto Rico after the hurricane, opened up relief centers at airports in Florida last year and distanced himself from Trump.
Nelson won 54 percent of Hispanic voters and Scott had 45 percent, according to exit poll data. Scott commissioned his own post-election polling in December that showed comparable numbers and indicated that his standing in the state among Latino voters was much stronger than Trump’s.
“We showed up,” Scott said, reflecting on his strategy with Latino communities. “Hispanics have the same issues as everybody else has. And so, I showed up and tried to solve their problems.”
Scott said he thought jobs, education, health care and public safety were the top issues. As for border security, “you hear it but it’s not the number one issue,” he said.
Florida has a large Cuban American population, which has embraced Republican candidates more warmly than other Hispanic voters. But in a sign of frustration with the GOP during Trump’s presidency, Democrats flipped two House districts in South Florida with large Cuban populations.
As he campaigned for Republicans in the midterm elections, Trump portrayed the migrant caravan moving through Mexico as a dangerous “invasion,” though it mostly consisted of families traveling on foot. When he launched his presidential campaign, Trump described Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and other criminals.
Asked whether he was bothered by Trump’s words, Scott would not say.
“Everybody’s got a different way of getting their stuff done. I can tell you how I am. My approach is be very results-oriented,” Scott said. Scott said his own record of achievements in Florida during Trump’s presidency was “pretty good” and that’s where his focus has been.
Scott said that in addition to securing the border, Congress should find a way to take care of young undocumented immigrants protected under a program the Trump administration has sought to end.
Some associates have predicted that Scott, who has spent his career as a public- and private-sector executive, will not enjoy the Senate, where he will have little power as a new junior senator and will have to learn to negotiate on immigration and other matters.
“He’ll find out very quickly he’s playing a very different role now,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientist at Florida International University. Even though Florida is not a border state, how Scott navigates his relationship with Trump and his plans on border security and immigration present significant political risks to the senator’s standing in the Hispanic community, particularly among Colombian, Venezuelan and Mexican Americans in the state, Gamarra said.