Who’s Afraid of Rick Scott?

sen rick scott
Sen. Rick Scott is leaving the door open for a presidential run in ’24, despite telling a group in Florida that he will run for re-election for the Senate. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
January 19, 2023

Politics can be a soulless and gutless bloodsport, and yet it’s rare to see the sort of bizarre choreography that is taking place among the 2024 G.O.P. presidential frontrunners, contenders, and poseurs, alike. There hasn’t quite been a rapturous movement to enlist the various Republicans—Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Glenn Youngkin or Mike Pompeo—who remain pottering around the sidelines, waiting for Trump’s campaign to implode or die listlessly. But they remain pressed to the glass in the hope that Trump, should he remain viable, and DeSantis bully club each other so ruthlessly that it opens up a lane for a third viable challenger. 

And then there’s Rick Scott, the multi-millionaire hospital magnate and former Florida governor and current McConnell antagonist in the Senate, who may have other designs. I’ve heard from multiple sources that, like any strategic politician, Scott is still leaving the door open for a presidential run in 2024, despite telling a group in Florida that he will run for re-election for the Senate. Sure, there’s no base of voters clamoring for Scott, either. But unlike the other ’24 hopefuls, save Youngkin, Scott has oodles of his own money. He is worth as much as $500 million and has been willing to dip into his own coffers at any time to burnish his brand. Asked about a 2024 bid, a Scott advisor told me that “[Scott] wouldn’t rule it out, and wants to keep his options open.”

Of course, consultants at OnMessage are pushing him on a presidential run, I’m told. He is, far and away, their largest client. To wit: he proved willing to drop seven figures of his own cash on a nationwide ad campaign explaining why he challenged McConnell for leadership in the Senate, and lost. The campaign, naturally, featured Scott pontificating about his much-ridiculed 11-point plan to “rescue” the country (later amended to include a 12th point, “stop Congress from bankrupting America”). 

There’s no denying Scott loves the game. Even before he ran for governor, he spent $5 million of his own money to campaign against Obamacare via a 501(c)3 called Conservatives for Patients’ Rights. He’s also not afraid to go after members of his own party. Long before his contretemps with McConnell, during his time in Tallahassee, he would strong-arm G.O.P. state legislators, even targeting them with ads in their districts. I’m told that Scott recently moved his longtime chief of staff Jackie Schutz Zeckman, whom he appointed executive director of the National Republican Senate Committee, back to Florida to run his political operation, even though his re-election, in 2024, should be a cakewalk as Florida gets redder and redder. (“His intention is to run for re-election, that’s the operation that he’s building out right now,” said Chris Hartline, a Scott spokesman. “He’s not taking anything for granted.”)

Also, Scott is nimble and ambitious. After detonating his status in the Senate by challenging McConnell, he surely isn’t living for a job where most politicians wait out the rest of their days. He took on the N.R.S.C. chairmanship as a way to build his own donor network across the country, while elevating himself with his own policy proposals and ad campaigns, featuring himself. Perhaps a key motivator for Scott is that he doesn’t quite like his successor in the statehouse, Ron DeSantis. “Rick is always a guy who maintains options because he has a checkbook,” said a former DeSantis staffer. “He’s very disciplined and he doesn’t do things half-assed. He’s very analytical and it’s a very dangerous proposition for DeSantis if he runs. Rick has the credibility to take the wind out of Ron’s sails and he has the money to wear him out.” 

“Standing on His Shoulders”

The beef between Scott and DeSantis has been thoroughly documented in all its pettiness and vaingloriousness: the last-minute appointments by Scott, the dueling inaugurals, the party he threw in the governor’s mansion on the day that DeSantis’s young family moved into the residence. At the time, of course, DeSantis was just a 30-something largely unknown figure who narrowly defeated a hyper-liberal candidate, Andrew Gillum. Over the intervening years, Scott has developed a different narrative regarding DeSantis’s success—namely, that he piggybacked on his own achievements, such as lowering unemployment from 11 percent to 3 percent, reducing the deficit, and cutting taxes. His team is particularly piqued by the lack of gratitude. Just this month, after DeSantis’s resounding re-election, Scott skipped his second inaugural address.

Scott—rich and bored and perhaps looking to cook up trouble outside the dome—is capable of unearthing a less flattering portrait of DeSantis’s governorship. Scott views the DeSantis administration, I’m told, as overly focused on culture war pinatas rather than fiscal issues. When Scott rode into the governor’s mansion in 2010 thanks to his checkbook and a Tea Party wave, he defeated party favorite Bill McCollum by zeroing in on his abuse of government perks, like availing himself of the state jet while he was Florida’s attorney general. I’ve heard that he would similarly try to frame DeSantis as a taxpayer-mooching grifter who is worth $300,000 while still carrying student loans, and who asked the state legislature to buy his office a $15 million private jet. (As a sign of belt-tightening, Scott sold all three of the state’s jets. After all, he had his own.) The two would also compete for the Florida donor network, which Scott has impeccably maintained. “Rick Scott’s team is vicious,” the former DeSantis aide said. “It’s very bad news for Ron if Rick gets in the race because he has the resources to zero in on him. He can go around and say that Ron DeSantis is standing on his shoulders with credibility.” 

Indeed, Scott’s entrance into the race could possibly be a bigger problem for DeSantis than his prickly personality—a much-discussed character flaw that has translated into a minuscule inner circle without a “Doug Stamper”-like lifer to clean up his messes, donors who are put off by his lack of gladhanding, and questions about his retail political skill. Even if Scott eventually demurs this cycle in order to prepare for 2028, his very engagement is a boon for Trump. His personal fortune, donor connections, and knowledge of DeSantis could make him a useful ally to Trump, perhaps in exchange for a cabinet position if Trump wins.

I also gather from talking to Trump aides that they think a challenger might create some momentum for their candidate. As his longtime political advisor Roger Stone put it to me, “Rick Scott may not be charismatic or telegenic, but he is dogged, disciplined, and very rich. He has proven his willingness to dip into his own coffers to finance his political ambitions, and unfortunately for governor DeSantis, he knows where, in Florida, all the bodies are buried.”