Long-running tensions between Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio have flared in the midterm elections, straining relations among Republicans as Scott prepares to launch a campaign for the Senate next week in a crucial battleground.
Scott is poised to announce his challenge to three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson on Monday, after encouragement from President Trump and other Republican leaders. Rubio (R-Fla.) will not appear at the kickoff. He also has said he does not plan to “campaign against” Nelson, whom he has praised as a partner.
Rubio’s stance, which could burnish Nelson’s bipartisan credentials, has struck a nerve among some Scott allies. They say the Republican senator is still nursing grudges from the 2016 campaign.
“Rubio should tread carefully regarding his budding friendship with Nelson . . . because Rubio and Scott share a donor base and a voter base,” said Dan Eberhart, an oil industry executive and top Scott fundraiser. “If Rubio refuses to endorse and Scott were to narrowly lose, Rubio’s detente with Nelson might backfire.”
Rubio said in a written statement to The Washington Post on Thursday that he is supporting Scott, but strategists and donors wonder how enthusiastically. Republicans close to Rubio said he has privately voiced his displeasure over attacks he faced in 2016 from a Senate primary challenger whose campaign was run by consultants who also work for Scott. And they said he has forged a genuinely productive relationship with Nelson.
The friction between Scott and Rubio threatens to hinder Republicans in a critical race as the GOP looks to add to its 51-49 Senate majority in a state that Trump won. Scott’s entrance into the race has the potential to upend the Senate map by forcing Democrats to spend millions of dollars in Florida that otherwise could go toward other races. There is talk among Scott’s close associates about amassing more than $100 million for his bid.
Democratic energy is high across the country, and GOP strategists are anticipating a close race in Florida. Rubio’s deep roots in South Florida’s Cuban American community could make him a valuable surrogate in a tight campaign.
But those close to the Republican senator are not predicting that he will go out on a limb to propel Scott across the finish line. Interviews with people who know Scott and Rubio described a cordial relationship between two Republicans with different personalities.
“One is a workhorse with the oratory skills of a root vegetable and is single-focused on jobs, jobs, jobs in Florida,” Ana Navarro, a veteran Florida Republican strategist, said of Scott. “The other is a dressage horse with a gift of gab and unfulfilled national aspirations.”
One Rubio associate, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid on a delicate topic, said Rubio and Scott “just have no connection.”
“Rubio is a guy’s guy. He wants to talk all about football and life and sports,” the Republican said. “And Rick Scott wants to talk about metrics and business theory and performance evaluation.”
In his statement to The Post, Rubio said: “I respect Senator Nelson and have a good working relationship with him. However, I believe Governor Scott will be a great addition to the Senate and will be supporting his campaign.”
Rubio, 46, rose through the ranks of the Florida legislature before being elected to the Senate in 2010. Scott, 65, was elected governor in 2010 as a political outsider. He had built a career as a health-care executive.
Rubio ran for president in a crowded Republican field in 2016. Scott did not make an endorsement before the Florida primary, but he did write a USA Today op-ed saying Trump “was capturing the frustration of many Americans after seven years of President Obama’s very intentional government takeover of the U.S. economy.”
Trump toppled Rubio in Florida, and Rubio immediately ended his campaign. But it was what happened in the months afterward that really irked him, people close to Rubio said.
Party leaders successfully convinced Rubio to run for reelection to the Senate, after he initially said he would not. But not everyone in the party cleared the way for him. Carlos Beruff, a wealthy real estate developer who already was running, decided to stay in the contest. He ran ads aggressively attacking Rubio.
Beruff’s campaign was helmed by strategists who worked for Scott, including consultants at OnMessage, a firm that has worked for Scott and is expected to play a major role in his Senate campaign.
“The fact that Scott’s consultants ran a lot of negative ads against Rubio does not make the relationship easier,” said one person close to Rubio.
A Scott political adviser had no immediate comment on the relationship between the governor and the senator.
Last week, Rubio told reporters that he would support the Republican nominee for Senate and predicted it would be Scott, if he runs. At the same time, he highlighted his positive relationship with Nelson and pledged not to “campaign against” him.
“I understand that it’s seen as almost antagonistic,” said Brian Ballard, a veteran lobbyist who knows Scott and Rubio personally. “But I understand the point, and there was a day gone by where that collegiality was welcomed by everybody.”
Two Republicans in frequent contact with Scott said that in private conversations he doesn’t mention Rubio much. The governor said last month that he would make a “big announcement” April 9 via Facebook Live. Rubio will not be on hand for that, the senator’s office said. He will be in Washington for Senate business.
Republicans are not expecting a sudden bromance to blossom in the coming months.
“They are both guys who are focused on their own brand,” said one Republican associate of Rubio and Scott.