In the end, Rick Scott was able to shake the stigma of his controversial business background and convince voters to elect him as the state’s new governor over Democrat Alex Sink.
After an extremely close race, Scott eked out a victory Wednesday morning, following an anxious night of waiting, as Sink held out hope that delays in counting votes in Palm Beach County could edge her closer to a tie, or into recount territory, if not an actual victory.
Last night, Scott predicted his slim margin of victory would hold, and Sink finally conceded at a press conference in Tampa late Wednesday morning. In her remarks, Sink said her bid failed because of “forces beyond [her] control,” citing Scott’s sizable monetary advantage as well as the large Republican turnout overall.
“He must put people back to work,” Sink said, referring to Scott. “That was his commitment. That was his campaign promise. … We’ll all be watching very closely, because that’s what Floridians expect.”
The final vote differential came in around 59,000 — just over 1 percent of all votes cast.
Scott, who has never held public office before, will be Florida’s third consecutive Republican governor to hold power. He will begin his administration with an entirely Republican cabinet (CFO, attorney general, agriculture commissioner), as well as a legislature dominated by Repbulicans.
It was a close and brutal race right down to election night. Polls throughout the final months put the two candidates in a statistical dead heat, and each spent millions on TV ads accusing the other of numerous character flaws.
Scott attempted to label Sink — by most accounts a moderate, middle-of-the-road Democrat — as an extreme liberal, and tried to connect her to President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. When that approach didn’t seem to resonate with voters, he launched a deluge of attack ads, calling her a failed executive, a failed public official and a cheater, after an aide showed her a text message during a break in a debate on CNN, contrary to debate rules.
For her part, Sink consistently revisited Scott’s past business history and labeled him untrustworthy.
Scott’s rise to become the Republican candidate for governor was one of the most unlikely campaigns this election season.
Scott, a multimillionaire former health care executive, was forced to resign in 1997 from the Columbia/HCA hospital chain he helped found, amid a federal investigation into systemic Medicare fraud that resulted in criminal charges against the company and one of the largest fines ever paid: $1.7 billion (which included settlements in civil cases).
He went on to found a chain of walk-in clinics in Florida called Solantic, and even there found controversy — a former medical director accused Scott in a lawsuit of setting a company-wide policy that prohibited hiring overweight people, and in other cases refusing to allow the director to hire a nurse because he had a strong Hispanic accent. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he also allegedly told the director not to hire anyone of Middle Eastern descent.
Five years later, five clinic managers sued Solantic, claiming the company had discriminatory hiring procedures. All the suits were settled out of court. During this year’s campaign, four other Solantic employees emerged to say they had seen billing irregularities involving Medicare at Solantic.
Scott and Solantic officials have vehemently denied all the accusations and said the accusers are disgruntled ex-employees, and that Solantic has an ethnically diverse workforce.
But Scott, who only became a permanent resident of Florida seven years ago, clearly believed he could overcome any negatives in voters’ minds. He presented himself as an outsider motivated to run the state like a business, vowing to cut taxes, shrink government and decrease business regulations.
He also embraced the tea party movement early on, even as he struggled to win over skeptics within the movement. He kept his message directed at his base of support: conservatives who are highly motivated to vote this election season. He had a testy relationship with the press, and boycotted meetings with newspaper editorial boards, preferring to bring his message directly to the voters.
Unlike other upstart conservative phenomenons in the state, like former state house speaker and U.S. Senate victor Marco Rubio, or U.S. congressional candidate Allen West, who each received millions in small batch donations from activists around the country, Scott was not buoyed by popular support. He propelled himself through the race with his own fortune, in an effort to convince everyone that he was committed and capable.
He had never run for office before and had to spend millions just to introduce himself before the election season. Then he engaged in a brutal primary fight with the candidate the state Republican Party’s leadership clearly preferred, Attorney General Bill McCollum. Scott spent roughly $60 million before he won the primary.
Sink, a former Bank of America executive who was elected as the state’s CFO four years ago, did not have any serious challengers in the primary. She came into the general election with a flotilla of goodwill. The law enforcement community gathered behind her en masse — she was endorsed early on by the Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Benevolent Associations, as well as numerous county sheriffs and state attorneys. She received unanimous approval from state newspapers.
But she still had to fight for every percentage point of support in the polls. In a nod to the heated and partisan politicking this season, former President Bill Clinton told Sink supporters at a rally: “If this were a normal election season, and this guy was running against her with all his problems … she’d be 25 points ahead. What happened?”
His answer — the economic crash created a tide of ill will against the party in power.
Tuesday, the voters agreed.