Florida Governor Rick Scott has a Donald Trump problem.
Scott is one of a handful of Republican Senate candidates in states with large Hispanic populations working to keep an arm’s-length relationship with the president. While Trump continues to enjoy strong support within the GOP base, his approval ratings remain underwater among Hispanic voters, who made up 18 percent of Florida’s electorate in 2016.
The distancing effort is a sudden turnabout for Scott, who was one of Trump’s earliest and most dedicated supporters. Scott endorsed Trump the day after he won the Republican primary in the Sunshine State. The Florida governor also fundraised for Trump, led a pro-Trump super PAC, and even hosted an inaugural party after the New York businessman’s surprise victory in 2016.
But the public relationship between the two has grown cold over the past months. The president’s racist and xenophobic policies and boorish attitude toward immigrants and American citizens from Puerto Rico have forced Scott to strike a delicate balance in his bid to unseat to Democratic incumbent Senator Bill Nelson.
But how do you rile up the Republican base without alienating Hispanic and independent voters who are put off by Trump’s hostilities?
If you’re Rick Scott, you give them different stories.
Two contrasting ads paid for by Scott’s campaign, which were first flagged last month by WBFS-TV in Miami, aired last month. See if you can spot the difference between the two.
In a Spanish-language ad aimed at south and central Floridians, titled “Compromiso,” or “Commitment,” Scott comes off as a consensus-builder. “When I don’t agree with what President Trump does or says, I’ve said it. My only commitment is with you,” Scott says in an accented Spanish.
“For me, what’s important is that your families have the best opportunities,” he says. “I ask for your vote so that together we can make Washington work for our families.”
The other ad, which ran in conservative, majority-white north Florida, strikes a far more Trumpian tone on immigration. A severe-voiced narrator describes an “immigration mess” caused by politicians like Bill Nelson in Washington, D.C., who voted against eliminating so-called “sanctuary cities,” while images of a border wall and a person in handcuffs flash on the screen.
“Now, Nelson’s co-sponsored a bill to bring back the catch-and-release policy that’s allowed 900,000 illegal immigrants caught here to stay here just by not showing up in court. Bill Nelson: dangerous on immigration.”
“Catch and release” refers to immigration policies that allow detained undocumented immigrants to be released while they await their day in court. The term has become a staple on the conservative right and has been employed by Trump to denounce existing legal protections used by migrant children.
The two ads together are fairly representative of Scott’s adaptable approach to electioneering.
Scott, of course, is not the first politician to unabashedly switch messaging based on the intended audience. Indeed, his political shape-shifting predates his current campaign. Scott’s first foray into politics began with a vicious Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010 against former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, who was backed by the state’s GOP establishment. Scott, who embraced support from the insurgent Tea Party, ran as a self-described party outsider, pushing for laws mandating police officers to check the immigration status of any suspect and forcing all employers to adopt E-Verify systems to stop the hiring of undocumented immigrants. After being elected governor, however, Scott dropped both.
Florida Democrats say Scott’s current moderate rebranding for swing and Latino voters is only his latest political pivot. Without a primary opponent to force him to the right in his bid for the Senate, Scott has been able to straddle the line between the political leanings of Florida’s different regions—or hop back and forth over it—without political repercussion. That’s in contrast to the Republican gubernatorial primary, where GOP nominee Ron DeSantis, a former Florida congressman, edged out his competition thanks in large part to an endorsement from Trump. DeSantis was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus and took to Trump almost immediately while in Congress, proposing an amendment to last year’s spending bill that would have cut off funding for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and would have prevented any probing into “matters occurring” before the month that Trump announced his presidency.
In the run-up to his Senate bid and in the months since, Scott has signaled his disagreement with the Trump administration on several policies, including rescinding protections for Dreamers and the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated migrant families at the border, while making sure not to challenge the president too firmly.
The strategy seems to be working. One June poll commissioned by Florida International University found that while more than 70 percent of Puerto Ricans in Florida disapprove of Trump, more than half have a positive view of Scott. Another more recent poll from September found that Scott had a double-digit lead over Nelson among Hispanic voters older than 50. Meanwhile, Trump, who opined on DeSantis’s bid for governor via Twitter as recently as yesterday, has yet to publicly voice any discontent with Scott’s campaign.
Scott’s opponent, Democrat Bill Nelson, understands he has to link Scott to Trump if he’s going to win the Latino and independent voters he needs to win re-election. Nelson has launched an ad campaign highlighting Scott’s past support of Trump.
In the perennial swing state of Florida, where Trump won by just 1.2 percentage points in 2016, close races abound and next month’s Senate race looks to be no different. Recent polling shows Scott and Nelson are locked in a statistical tie, with Nelson holding a lead that’s within the polls’ margin of error.