Democrat strategists said the issue provides them an opportunity to renew attacks on Scott’s past health care-related controversies.
But Republicans counter that Florida voters have already taken them into account, in Scott’s favor.
In a tragedy at a nursing home whose air conditioners shut down during Hurricane Irma, Democratic strategists in Florida are seeing a possible cudgel against Gov. Rick Scott should he run against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson next year.
But Republican operatives defended Scott’s handling of the disaster and said his actions could ultimately prove to be an asset in a potential campaign.
As Florida’s governor, Scott, a Republican who is being forced from his Tallahassee job by term limits, has a natural perch to keep the attention of voters, donors and the press.
But the deaths of residents at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills nursing home in Hollywood, Fla., after a state regulator said its air conditioning equipment stopped operating properly, is a controversy that is not soon going away. On Monday, Hollywood police said in a statement that 14 patients from the facility are now confirmed dead.
One Florida Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity to discuss party strategy, said last week that even though Scott got “pretty high marks with the hurricane,” the tale of the nursing home “has not yet been told,” which has “the potential of really blowing up in his face.”
The Senate Democrats’ campaign arm is already planning to make the nursing home tragedy a centerpiece of a campaign against Scott, even though he has not announced his candidacy. But several Florida political strategists from both parties interviewed over the past week said they believe that he will run for Senate.
As new revelations continue to emerge, Scott’s scandal is only continuing to escalate.
As Scott was in Washington on Wednesday to meet with lawmakers about disaster aid, David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters, “As new revelations continue to emerge, Scott’s scandal is only continuing to escalate.”
Scott became directly involved in the issue after he gave out his cellphone number to local, hospital and nursing home officials in conference calls ahead of the storm last month.
According to Scott’s office, a Hollywood Hills nursing home official left voicemails on Scott’s phone requesting assistance in restoring power to its air conditioning, but those voicemails were not retained.
The Scott administration said it was not made aware that “conditions had become dangerous or that the health and safety of their patients was at risk” until the day the first initial deaths were confirmed.
Kerri Wyland, a spokesperson for Scott, said in an email Wednesday that the messages were sent to the proper agency for handling and that every call was returned before the voicemails were deleted from Scott’s cellphone.
Further, she referred to a statement from Scott on Sept. 25, in which he said, “It’s a ridiculous and irrational suggestion that my personal cellphone is somehow a substitute for 911.”
Wyland also noted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is helping the Hollywood Police Department investigate what happened, and Scott directed the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Florida Department of Children and Families to launch their own probes.
Scott issued an emergency rule last month ordering nursing homes to have generators that can maintain comfortable temperatures and directed the state to begin making it permanent. The state also suspended the license of the facility where the patients died.
A Republican strategist supporting Scott’s possible Senate bid, who asked for anonymity in an interview on Monday, said Scott could emerge as the person who “holds them accountable” rather than as someone asleep at the switch.
Since the hurricane, the Republican strategist said Scott canceled several political events, including donor meetings, for a month in order to focus on the state’s hurricane response. The strategist said the response helped him show his leadership abilities.
The most recent Morning Consult data shows that Scott and Nelson are evenly matched in voter approval ratings. A poll conducted April 1 to July 10 found 52 percent of Florida voters approved of Scott’s job performance, while 37 percent disapproved and 11 percent had no opinion or didn’t know. When asked about Nelson, a survey found 53 percent said they approved of his job performance at the time, while a quarter of Florida voters disapproved and 22 percent had no opinion.
Democrats, including those supporting Nelson’s bid, said the issue provides them opportunity to renew attacks on Scott’s past health care-related controversies, including the $1.7 billion penalty paid by HCA, the hospital company he ran, to settle what the Justice Department called in June 2003 the largest health care fraud case in U.S. history.
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Tre’ Evers, a Republican political consultant in Florida, said those issues have “already been litigated,” at least for most Floridians.
“I think anything he’s done before he became governor is already cooked into his numbers. It’s a race about the future and how they view his current performance,” he said.
For his part, Nelson has called for an investigation into the nursing home deaths. Florida Democratic operatives said it would be best to look beyond just the nursing home tragedy and the governor’s past corporate controversies.
“We spent millions of dollars trying to drive that Medicare fraud attack. It went nowhere,” said Scott Arceneaux, who served as the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party from 2009 until this year when he became the chief strategist for Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s campaign for the party’s gubernatorial nomination.
Asked what his message would be, he said, “Focus on the now: ‘He said he’d be the jobs governor – he hasn’t delivered. He made promises he couldn’t keep. He’s not on your side.’ ”
Steve Schale, who’s helping former Rep. Gwen Graham’s campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nod, also suggested Nelson should hit Scott on the “trust factor,” as well as his support for President Donald Trump and the economy.
“Florida’s created a lot of jobs, but at the same time, there’s a big book of evidence that shows job growth has not been in good paying jobs,” he said.
Schale, who worked against Scott in the 2014 gubernatorial race, warned Democrats not to underestimate him.
“Rick Scott is at his absolute best when he’s in campaign mode,” he said. “He’s an underrated campaigner – awkward and stilted on the stump – but he’s as tireless and as religiously on message as any politician you’ll ever meet.”