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Florida Democrats struggle to coalesce around a candidate to take down Sen. Rick Scott

With the power of incumbency, significant funding, a registration advantage among Republicans and a weakened Democratic Party, Scott is the heavy favorite for the 2024 race.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., walks out of the Capitol on May 3, 2023.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., walks out of the Capitol on May 3.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republican Sen. Rick Scott enters his 2024 re-election bid as the heavy favorite in the race at a moment when Democrats in Florida have never been weaker.

Incumbents usually come in with something of an advantage. But in Scott's case, he's going up against a Florida Democratic Party that has not won a Senate race since 2012, and it's coming off a midterm election cycle that saw Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis win by nearly 20 points in what many viewed as a rock-bottom moment for the party.

That problem for Democrats is most clearly seen through the rewired makeup of the state’s electorate.

Last time Scott was on the ballot, in 2018, Democrats had a nearly 270,000-voter registration advantage, a number that has flipped to a more than 400,000-voter advantage for Republicans after the GOP poured millions of dollars into registration efforts in recent years.

During the 2022 midterms, national Democratic groups all but abandoned the state, spending just $2 million compared to $60 million during the 2014 midterms. Because it’s a presidential cycle, however, Scott anticipates more spending from national Democrats this time around.

“It is the first presidential election cycle I will be in. It’s still the biggest swing state. The national Democratic Party is going to spend money here,” Scott told NBC News during an interview at a downtown Tampa Starbucks this week. “I think they [Democrats] will need Florida. There are a bunch of swing states. If you can get Florida, that’s a big win.”

The number of states in play is part of the difficult calculus for groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Overall, six Democratic Senate incumbents are facing tough re-election bids: Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, as well as Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who is now an independent.

Democrats are trying to remain optimistic. They note that in his two gubernatorial races and one U.S. Senate race, Scott has never won by more than 2 percentage points, including in a 2018 recount that saw him defeat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by just 10,033 votes.

“There are pythons more popular in Florida than Rick Scott’s plan to cut Medicare and Social Security,” said David Bergstein, the DSCC’s communications director. 

That’s a reference to the "Rescue America" plan Scott pitched during the 2022 midterms when he was chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. During his tenure, the party underperformed and saw Democrats expand their Senate majority.

One part of Scott's plan was to sunset all federal legislation after five years, which Democrats and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., used to frame Scott as proposing to sunset entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. The original plan also said that “all Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game.” Scott revised the proposal after getting criticism for proposing the lowest-income Americans pay more taxes.

The plan became a flashpoint in an open feud between Scott and McConnell. Scott says he welcomes Democrats using his proposal during the campaign and is ready to hit back.

“I’ll fight over my ideas any day,” Scott said. “Biden. Schumer. McConnell all lied about it. I was never going to cut any programs.”

Scott and McConnell openly clashed throughout the 2022 midterms, not only over the direction of Republicans' midterm Senate races, but also over a failed leadership challenge that saw Scott try to oust McConnell as Republican leader.

Scott, however, said his relationship with McConnell is “fine.”

“He is the Republican leader,” Scott said, without elaborating.

Scott could also face headwinds on the issue of abortion. DeSantis has signed a six-week abortion ban, which he did during a late-night, closed-door signing ceremony. The quiet nature of the bill-signing was seen as an acknowledgement that the proposal is politically toxic, and the issue will again loom large one cycle after the 2022 midterms, when Democrats benefited from the backlash to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

In addition, a coalition of left-leaning groups this week announced a proposed Florida ballot measure that would put language in the state constitution legalizing abortion up to 24 weeks in a pregnancy.

Scott, who said as governor he would have signed a six-week abortion ban, said he is not concerned about running in a political environment so heavily influenced by the issue of abortion, or potentially even on the same ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment.

“We have got to figure out how we explain where they [Democrats] are,” Scott said. “Democrats are not where the country is” on abortion.

For months, Democrats have had a short list of potential candidates, but so far none have signaled they are definitely running and the prospects have largely brushed off questions on the matter. Among those whom Democrats would like to run are former NBA legends Dwyane Wade and Grant Hill, but even those trying to recruit them acknowledge they are long shots.

Among the more realistic candidates who could consider a run is Brevard County School Board Member Jennifer Jenkins, who has deep ties to the party and has acted as a counterweight to many of the GOP's high-profile culture-wars-influenced education fights. She was recently in Washington, D.C., speaking at The Pipeline Fund, a group dedicated to building a diverse bench of progressive candidates. While there, she met with a handful of donors and Democratic-leaning groups as she mulls a potential bid for the Senate.

Jenkins is one of the newer names being openly discussed by Democrats eager to field a candidate against Scott. Others include former Rep. Stephanie Murphy, state Sen. Shev Jones and former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.

Getting a fundraising head start is key for any of the candidates because Scott has used his own significant personal wealth in each of his first three statewide races. In his interview with NBC News he did not rule out doing so again in 2024, but said “I won’t have to.”

Though Democrats are slower this cycle to coalesce behind a front-runner, they remain hopeful that Scott’s positions in the Senate — specifically the 11-point plan — the fact that he has had razor-thin wins in the past and the boost of running in a presidential election cycle when Democrats turn out in much larger numbers will help them rewire the increasingly entrenched narrative that Democrats can no longer win in the state.

“Floridians reached their final straw with Rick Scott when he proposed cutting Medicare and Social Security, an absurdity on so many levels,” Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried said. “Now he is doubling down on being way out of the mainstream Florida by lauding the state’s dangerous and unconstitutional new abortion ban.”