A national gathering of fiscal conservatives was the ideal setting for Florida Gov. Rick Scott to test-drive the central message of his reelection campaign: The state's economy is improving on my watch after fizzling under my Obama-friendly predecessor, Charlie Crist.
The numbers seem to back him up. Since Scott's election in the Republican wave of 2010, unemployment dropped from 11.1 percent to 7.1 percent, and 370,000 jobs have been created. Under Crist, the Republican-turned-Democrat expected to announce his comeback campaign this fall, unemployment climbed from 3.5 percent to 11.1 percent while 832,000 jobs disappeared.
"Conservative, pro-growth policies are working in Florida, and we have a lot to brag about," Scott told an enthusiastic audience Friday of about 1,500 people at the Americans for Prosperity summit in Orlando.
Making the case to the nation's largest swing state over the next 15 months will be more challenging, hinging on whether Scott can convince voters that he — and not President Obama — deserves the credit for the rebound in the economy. Scott is among nine Republican governors running for reelection in 2014 in states carried by Obama who will be making similarly self-serving pitches. With a favorable rating of only 40 percent, Scott is a top target for Democrats, along with Rick Snyder in Michigan, Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, and Paul LePage in Maine.
Economists say it's complicated to assign blame or credit to politicians for cycles in the economy, compounding the pressure on Scott and other governors to make a persuasive pitch. One of the biggest questions for voters to settle in 2014 will be: Whose economy is it? Bolstering Scott's claims and giving him an advantage over his counterparts in Michigan and Pennsylvania is that Florida's unemployment rate has dipped below the national average, the second biggest drop in the country.
Scott asserts he created a more fertile climate for businesses by cutting regulations and taxes, and he has branded his administration and campaign with the "It's working" slogan.
"Business growth and the turnaround in the economy certainly have a lot to do with how a state is governed," said Florida Republican Chairman Lenny Curry. "It couldn't be clearer that the president has done nothing to figure out and to reduce our deficit and spending problem."
But Crist, who has been meeting with pollsters and campaign managers this summer, argues that voters will neither blame him for the recession nor credit Scott with the recovery.
"I think everybody realizes that we had a global economic meltdown, and the notion that a governor can stop that is kind of silly," said Crist, who headed the state from 2007 to 2010. "I understand that Rick Scott might want to take credit for the national economic turnaround, but I think that's more to do with what the president and his administration have done as well as the hardworking people of Florida and America."
Democratic consultant Steve Schale, who is advising Crist and helped Obama carry the state twice, said, "If voters were going to give Scott all the credit for the economy, he wouldn't be trailing an unannounced candidate for governor by double digits." (A June poll by Quinnipiac University found Crist leading Scott, 47 percent to 37 percent.)
Not only are Democrats bracing to defend President Obama's economic policies in 2014, they are also gearing up to prosecute Republican governors for exacerbating gaps between the rich and the poor. The line of attack against Scott mimics the populist rallying cry that the Democratic Party used to defeat another multimillionaire, Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
"Republican governors like Rick Scott might try to claim credit for a national recovery, but working families have paid deeply for their failed top-down economic policies that reward the wealthiest and well-connected at the expense of middle-class job creation and investments in education and infrastructure," said Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.
In another campaign redux, Scott is expected to re-litigate the case against Obama's economic stimulus spending in his first year in office. Without mentioning Crist by name, Scott on Friday assailed his predecessor for literally embracing Obama and his policy with a hug at a 2009 rally — a powerful image used by Republican Marco Rubio to defeat Crist in the 2010 Senate race. Democrats note that the stimulus money saved teaching and law-enforcement jobs and that Scott kept about $370 million of federal money in his first budget.
Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness, said governors typically wield less control over the economy than the president, who can lower interest rates, affect financial markets, and run deficits to try to stimulate the economy. In Florida, where the economy is largely driven by the real-estate market, the housing bubble created severe highs and lows.
"Business cycles are much more powerful than any politician or any policy, so by and large they are at the mercy of economy, even more so at the state and local level," Snaith said. "It is fair to blame Crist because the housing market went down when he was governor and credit Scott because now it's improving? The answer probably depends on how much money they spend on advertising."