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'Shadow box': Rick Scott’s agenda seen as challenge to McConnell by some in GOP

The Florida senator's choice to release an ultraconservative plan fuels suspicion about his 2024 ambitions, including a possible White House bid, multiple Republicans said.
Image: Rick Scott, GOP Senators Hold Press Conference On Inflation
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, on May 26, 2021.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

When Sen. Rick Scott broke ranks with GOP leadership this week by releasing a 11-point election-year agenda, the Florida lawmaker said he just wanted to give Republicans something to run on and conservatives something to vote for.

But Scott, the chair of the party’s Senate campaign arm, did more than that.

He gave Democrats something to attack. He stoked divisions within his party. And he has fueled suspicion among fellow Republicans that he is challenging the Senate's GOP leader with more thought to his own 2024 ambitions than the goal of topping Democrats in this year's midterms.

“It is quite unusual to have the campaign chairman frame an agenda that is not endorsed by the entirety of the leadership. And some parts are clearly controversial that may play well in some primaries but could end up hurting Republicans in the general election,” said Ron Bonjean, a former Senate GOP leadership aide. “The question many Republicans are asking is, 'Why take a shovel away from Democrats who are digging their own grave right now?'”

Complete with provocative images, including a burning Constitution, Scott's plan is exactly the kind of ultraconservative wishlist Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wanted to avoid promoting as he tries to keep midterm voters focused on what he sees as the failures of President Joe Biden.

Under Scott's plan, the tens of millions of people who are too poor to be required to pay federal income tax would be forced to do so, while all federal laws would expire within five years — including Medicare, Social Security and criminal statutes. The plan would also prohibit government forms from asking about gender identity.

In ignoring McConnell, Scott's team anticipated and hoped for the outcry from Democrats that the plan received. The White House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have all pilloried its provisions as radical and harmful, bringing the attention that Scott sought.

But his tactic Tuesday also revealed seldom-seen behind-the-scenes tensions between his political operation and McConnell's.

Scott's former pollster and ally, Tony Fabrizio, unexpectedly entered the fray on Twitter by accusing Scott of undermining McConnell, and he questioned the wisdom of the plan that called for everyone to pay something in taxes — something that Democrats had quickly framed as a tax hike.

“While I applaud my friend @SenRickScott courage for staking out an agenda (though don’t understand embracing or saddling GOP with a tax increase), if you’re gonna challenge @LeaderMcConnell just say so,” Fabrizio wrote on Twitter. “Don’t shadow box.”

Fabrizio’s comment came in reply to a post from Scott’s top political adviser, Curt Anderson, who criticized journalists for quoting anonymous Republican critics of Scott’s plan.

"MEMO FOR REPORTERS,” Anderson wrote. "When anonymous consultants who helped lose the Senate majority complain about Rick Scott’s plan, call me and I will destroy them on the record. The idea that we should be timid & quiet without a plan is antiquated thinking from the 90’s."

Suspicions arose between those in McConnell's orbit and Scott’s soon after Scott was tapped to lead the National Republican Senatorial Committee, when he bucked the leader's request and voted against certifying Biden's presidential win in the aftermath of the violent riot at the Capitol carried out by supporters of former President Donald Trump intent on stopping that process.

McConnell backers worried that vote would make fundraising difficult, although it ultimately did not. Some Republicans close to McConnell also chafed when Scott cut an ad featuring himself during the special Georgia senate races that both Republicans lost Jan. 5, 2021 — the day before the Capitol riot.

One Republican who speaks frequently with McConnell said the leader and Scott have a "professional workmanlike relationship. But I wouldn’t call them buddies."

"The fact is, McConnell has been doing this a long time and he knows what he’s talking about,” the source said. “Then Rick Scott comes along and just does this, causes a huge needless news cycle and for what? Rick Scott? Where’s the win?”

Another Republican in McConnell's orbit said Scott didn't just annoy McConnell by releasing his plan, it tripped up Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the chair of the Senate Republican Conference who had been talking to his colleagues about whether to release a plan of their own. Barrasso's office declined to comment.

McConnell's office did not respond to a request for comment.

It's typical for an ambitious lawmaker to play to a political base with a proposal — or even a full agenda — that party leaders perceive as perilous for their efforts to win majorities in Congress. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, led a fight to shut down the government as he prepared for a 2016 presidential bid, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., previewed his 2020 Democratic presidential campaign with a Medicare for All push that divided his party and shaped much of that year’s primary debate.

What's different about Scott’s maneuver is that he is the party leader responsible for the Senate GOP's 2022 midterm fortunes. That has led some fellow Republicans to question whether he is positioning himself to run for president — or for McConnell's job.

The release of his own agenda for the party is "clearly an ambition thing," said one aide to a Senate Republican leader. “If he’s going to throw away the ‘22 election to position himself for ‘24, that doesn’t bode well for his future.”

Though he’s not up for re-election until 2024, Scott is launching a campaign-style ad on his plan and holding round-table discussions about it with reporters. He’s also scheduled to speak Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he is expected to mention the proposal.

In an interview, Scott argued that the plan would not harm any of the candidates in his party. He also said he was neither jockeying for position in a 2024 GOP presidential primary or trying to undermine McConnell.

Asked if he was angling to be the Senate GOP leader, Scott issued a one-word response: "No." He left himself a little more wiggle room on the next presidential election.

"That's not in my plans. No," he said. "I'm working to be a U.S. senator."

Scott last week said he would support McConnell for Republican leader even though Trump — whom Scott is close to — is attempting to oust as leader over his criticism of Trump for the Jan. 6 riot.

Scott portrayed his move as the act of an individual member of the Senate, not the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

"I agree that the election will be about Biden's failures," he said. "Campaigns need to have plans, something to run on. It's not the plan for the NRSC. It's not the plan for the Republican Party. It's the things that Rick Scott believes we should be talking about."

That's not how Democrats see it.

Scott "and Senate Republicans just released an economic plan that doesn’t include a single proposal to lower prices for the middle class. Instead he wants to raise taxes on half of Americans — including on seniors and working families," White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted. "Seriously, that’s their plan."

What will be important for Scott if he has designs on McConnell's office or a GOP presidential nomination is whether Republicans want to be married to his proposals. Some in the GOP applauded them.

“Maybe it bothers McConnell, but too bad," said one senior staff member to a Republican senator up for re-election this year said. "Rick’s made himself a player in the party and in D.C. by doing it his own way. He sticks to his guns. He doesn’t apologize. The left is losing its mind. And our voters are like, ‘Yeah. Thank God someone is owning the libs.”'

Said a senior Senate Republican aide: "A lot of this is what Republican voters want, what donors want."

GOP voters want "red meat," the aide added, "and Rick Scott just brought a herd of cattle."