How to Lose Friends and Alienate D.C.

rick scott
Rick Scott’s tenure as chairman of the N.R.S.C. hasn’t gone the way many in the G.O.P. envisioned. Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
September 12, 2022

In 2019, Rick Scott rolled into Washington with stars in his eyes. For years, the handsomely wealthy healthcare mogul and former governor of Florida lived a relatively gilded existence. For starters, the guy surfed into the Tallahassee governor’s mansion in 2011 on the Tea Party wave despite running a hospital system that was slapped with a $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud. He remained a loyal boy scout for Donald Trump at all costs, encouraging his border wall fantasies, and then claimed his place in the Senate by labeling Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson as a socialist. Last year, he ran unopposed for the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a job no one really wants because of the required time, travel, and donor-hustling, but an opportunity that Scott nevertheless likely viewed as a prime flesh-squeezing role, where a canny operator could build both a robust big-money network and small-contribution fundraising operation. For this reason, among others, it’s a useful trampoline to vocations outside the upper chamber.

Scott entered town with a bang befitting his thinly-veiled ambitions. He threw himself his own veritable inaugural gala, the Sunshine Ball, a fundraiser for his political committee with tickets up to $100,000, in the middle of the government shutdown. Since taking on the N.R.S.C. chairmanship in 2020, he’s stared straight into the camera for ads that, rather peculiarly, sometimes don’t feature actual candidates. He’s also released his own G.O.P. agenda, an “11-Point Plan to Rescue America” that was widely panned by Republicans for suggesting higher taxes on even the poorest American families, and has since been used as ammo by Democrats. 

When Scott first raised his hand to run the N.R.S.C., there was a lot of optimism. “This guy has a huge donor network and raises a shit ton of money, he can bring a new pedigree that we don’t currently have,” one G.O.P. lobbyist told me, characterizing the feelings around town. But it became clear fairly quickly that Scott did not recognize that the N.R.S.C. was always an extension of Mitch McConnell’s ex officio apparatus, and that McConnell expected to have a hand in it. 

McConnell has typically selected the executive director of the N.R.S.C.—a position previously held by his former chief of staff, Josh Holmes, and his preferred consultants, like Ward Baker and Kevin McLaughlin. Instead Scott put his own chief of staff, Jackie Schutz Zeckman, in the role, further edging out McConnell people as he prepared to upend the digital operation that they had built in 2014 through the vaunted digital agency, Targeted Victory. “Scott’s team will say, ‘It’s the political class against us,’ but they’ve completely dislodged the leader’s political team,” the Republican lobbyist said. “The frustration is that McConnell’s team learned a lot from 2010 and 2012, and they built a new and more nimble, dynamic N.R.S.C., and they feel that they’ve been completely dislodged.” 

Scott’s restructuring is indeed apparent from the N.R.S.C. independent expenditure report. Scott is consolidating most of the ad buying around his preferred firm, OnMessage. Eighty percent of the $22.7 million that the N.R.S.C. has spent on ads has been placed through entities at one address associated with OnMessage, run by Scott’s longtime consultant Curt Anderson, who ran his gubernatorial and senatorial campaign. In fact, the N.R.S.C.’s independent expenditure arm is run by OnMessage’s Joanna Burgos. But during his two year term, there’s been panic that Scott would slash what he perceives as sweetheart deals with the committee before he steps down in January, pissing off essentially everyone.

All of which, of course, makes it a lot more delicious for the consultant class to pile on Scott when he appears to fall short at his core job—delivering Senate seats for Republicans. Day after day, there’s been bad press about the prospects for Republicans, with the blame often placed squarely on Scott. The grievances are manifold: Why didn’t he better support candidates in the primaries; why was he yachting in the Mediterranean during the heat of an election; and, perhaps most critically, why did he invest all of the high-dollar donations into a new digital apparatus aimed at attracting small-dollar donations that didn’t offer a meaningful return on the investment

It was this digital gamble, in particular, that has left the N.R.S.C. with little capital to spend on Blake Masters’s increasingly long-shot endeavor to unseat incumbent Senator Mark Kelly. Spending generously with one’s favorite consultancy wouldn’t be a problem if Scott’s pile of money was larger and he was able to spread it around. But because of the digital overhaul gamble, the N.R.S.C. has spent less than half of the $51 million that the organization spent by this point during the last cycle. 

Sure, there are outsized influences bearing down on this cycle—the Roe earthquake, Trump’s weak candidates, and McConnell’s impotence in dealing with Trump’s erratic, ego-driven influence on the election—but it appears that, in a town of finger-pointing, Scott’s already being blamed if the G.O.P. doesn’t achieve what once looked like a surefire 51-seat majority.  

“Rick Scott Has Made a Lot of Enemies”

Yes, the Scott haters are out. In the past, he’s called them “Washington insiders,” and he’s probably not wrong about that characterization. But this is exactly the time when Scott, a lone wolf, could use some allies. And those defenders would usually come in the form of greased hands. “Making ‘friends’ in D.C. is not his job, winning the majority is, and we are going to win the majority. People will just have to deal with that,” said N.R.S.C. spokesperson Chris Hartline.

The N.R.S.C. has long been a meaty campaign fundraising vessel, feeding the various polling, messaging, mailers, TV ads, and of late, digital vendors around D.C. with its millions of dollars. But this year, there’s less money in that war chest since Scott invested heavily in building an in-house digital operation for the N.R.S.C. and spent millions of dollars on those ads to attract small-dollar donations that didn’t have the intended impact. The New York TimesShane Goldmacher has a very comprehensive piece on how this effort has fallen short and left the N.R.S.C. with very little money for independent expenditure.

This, of course, means there’s less money to go around for consultants. But some say there would be fewer daggers headed toward Scott if more people knew what was going on—and all of the decisions weren’t made in a vacuum. “There’s no insight whatsoever on what’s going on on a daily basis, how they prioritize spending, and why,” said one of the N.R.S.C.’s longtime vendors. “People didn’t know the extent of the problems until Shane’s piece in The New York Times.” 

One senior Senate aide was more circumspect about the reality of the situation. “If you’re a governor of one of the largest states, and have been governor for eight years, you’re going to have your own people and own way of doing it. In that sense, it’s not surprising,” this person told me. But, they conceded: “That also didn’t make him a lot of friends. I don’t think it’s driving all of this, but I don’t think it helps him that he’s rubbed all of these people the wrong way.” A separate senior Senate aide put it even more succinctly: “Rick Scott has made a lot of enemies by consolidating the N.R.S.C.’s work to OnMessage. These firms have a lot of institutional knowledge, they know what works.”

After all, past N.R.S.C. chairs haven’t had to graduate from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to know that they probably ought to bring in Holmes, who is not placing digital ads for the N.R.S.C. at nearly the same scale as he has in previous cycles, or Baker, who was not hired this cycle. Scott’s high-donor-to-small-dollar digital apparatus was overseen by Trump’s former digital guru, Gary Coby. This decision effectively pushed aside Targeted Victory. “Consultants and vendors are pissed but they’re wondering where the $180 million went,” said another former N.R.S.C. staffer.  

In April 2022, a few months after Scott released his much-mocked political agenda, Hartline chalked up the criticism to “sour grapes,” telling The Washington Post, “We don’t spend much time worrying about criticisms from anonymous Republican consultants who lost the Senate last cycle and who have gotten rich off maintaining the status quo,” and “don’t get paid like they used to.”

He dismissed the idea that the N.R.S.C. had severely streamlined its vendors, telling me that they’re working with more than 40 vendors focused solely on digital fundraising. Then he twisted the knife. “What we don’t have, like they’ve had before,” he continued, “is one vendor with monopoly control of the committee’s digital fundraising operation, which also controlled the committee’s data. Chairman Scott rejected that model, brought the N.R.S.C.’s data in-house, and opened up the vendor process to competition.”

If Scott pulls out the Senate for the Republicans, he’ll surely have the last laugh. But if he doesn’t, he’ll learn pretty quickly a lesson that others have experienced the hard way for generations, including some of the wealthiest and ambitious machers who thought they could transfer their paradigms from state houses and business, alike: Washington can be a pretty lonely place if you don’t take care of your friends.