McCollum’s Problem: An Anti-Incumbent Year
He paid his dues in state politics – 20 years in congress, two losing U.S. Senate campaigns, and one term as attorney general. He was the only Republican in the governor's race for nearly a year until millionaire Rick Scott quietly announced his candidacy in April.
In most years, McCollum, one of the faithful stand-bys of Florida GOP politics, would be a shoo-in, at least for his party’s nomination.
But he happens to be running in a year that has generated what many say is the most anti-incumbent fervor since the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. Lawmakers across the country with long records of political service are being booted from office. And McCollum has a final month of tough campaigning ahead instead of sailing into the general election contest against likely Democratic nominee Alex Sink.
Even McCollum's allies note that Scott's lack of political experience gives him an edge in this particular year.
Scott's campaign has been hammering into voters’ psyche the term “career politician,” using it to label his opponent at every campaign stop. In TV commercials flooding the airwaves since spring, Scott says he will hold “these guys in government" accountable, as he points derisively at the Capitol.
And in a year of tea parties, anger at the federal health care law, a struggling economy and anger at government bailouts – the anti-government talk of an outsider challenging the establishment plays.
Mary Bellamy, a Hillsborough schools special education teacher who came to hear Scott speak at a Tampa luncheon last week and quizzed him over education policy, said she doesn't have anything against McCollum, but noted that he's been in politics for “quite a while” and she doesn't want the “same old, same old.”
“He's like a stale onion that sits on the shelf,” she said.
A June Quinnipiac University poll showed the former Columbia/HCA executive ahead by 14 points. A new poll on the race by the Connecticut-based polling center is due out Thursday.
“I think people like what (Scott) says,” said incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who is a McCollum supporter. “I think the commercials and talking points speak very well.”
Scott's surge in the polls may also splinter the Republican party establishment, who until recently have all been firmly in McCollum's camp. The Florida Chamber of Commerce has endorsed McCollum, but Associated Industries of Florida hedged its bet a bit by endorsing both men.
“It has little to do with politics or a particular candidate’s likelihood of winning,” said AIF President Barney Bishop. “Ultimately, the board chose to endorse both candidates because we believe that either one would be generally supportive of our positions.”
Longtime political fixtures such as former Gov. Jeb Bush are backing McCollum along with Haridopolos and incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon. But several lawmakers joined Scott at events on his campaign bus tour through the state this past weekend embracing and parroting his anti incumbent message – even if they themselves were incumbents.
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and Reps. Brad Drake, Matt Gaetz, Jimmy Patronis and Mike Weinstein all came out to support the GOP front runner during the tour.
While playing the outsider role, Scott has reached out to the GOP establishment, although he declined to talk about that recently, saying he didn’t want to breach confidences.
Both Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, a member of House leadership in line to be a future leader of House Republicans and former House Speaker Allan Bense, who now raises money for the party, have met with Scott, though both remain McCollum backers.
Scott said he believes that Republican Party Chair John Thrasher has done what he can to keep the party neutral in the primary, though many people, including finance chair Bense have stayed with McCollum.
“Clearly the party establishment is kind of all on board - well not all - was on board with McCollum early on,” Scott said. “And a lot of people, not for public consumption, have said 'You're the right candidate. We're really glad you're running, but we got on board with McCollum. We don't want to back down.'”
A spokeswoman for McCollum didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.