An executive whose company had to pay a record fine for fraud and a billionaire who made his fortune in credit-default swaps might seem like non-starters for public office given the poisonous public mood of the recession.
But in Florida, these candidates have a real shot at upsetting the Democratic and Republican parties’ endorsed candidates for governor and U.S. Senate.
Former health-care executive Rick Scott leads Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary for governor by 13 points, and billionaire Jeff Greene is in a virtual tie with Rep. Kendrick Meek in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Thursday.
The key to their success: self-financing
Neither of these candidates would have much of a chance if they were not self-financed. In merely six weeks, Rick Scott has bought $11 million worth of ads across Florida. The ads hit on Republican red-meat issues like illegal immigration, health-care reform, cutting spending, and balanced budgets. Jeff Greene has spent an undisclosed sum on two ads on air since May 18 with popular Democratic slogans like “green jobs” and “ending dependence on foreign oil.”
“The power of getting your name out there in Florida lies in being able to get on the air,” says University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith. “This isn’t a retail state, you go wholesale,” he adds, estimating that Greene’s ad buy would cost between $1.5 and $2 million a week statewide.
Those talking points aside, remove the names of the campaigns and the ads could be identical. Both rail against “career politicians,” tout their “outsider” status, and talk about their “results” in the private sector. “I’ll give you fair warning: I’m not a politician,” says Rick Scott in one of his ads.
“The career politicians had their chance. I want to create jobs, get things done,” says Jeff Greene.
Their opponents can only campaign about their self-financing. The Meek campaign released a statement saying that Greene was “trying to buy Florida’s Senate seat.” Attorney General McCollum’s spokesman Kristy Campbell said, “Rick Scott has spent $15 million in half as many weeks to fund his public image repair squad’s pricey and misleading paid media campaign. It’s no surprise he has skyrocketed in the polls since Floridians are just beginning to learn about his questionable past.”
How have they dealt with their wealth?
Both campaigns have had to deal with the fact that their candidates are extremely wealthy, not to mention the ways each came about in their fortunes.
In 1997, Rick Scott stepped down as executive of the largest for-profit hospital chain in the U.S., Columbia/HCA, after the U.S. government fined it a record $1.7 billion for Medicare and Medicaid fraud. Rick Scott was never charged with a crime, but the company double-billed Medicare and gave kickbacks to doctors for referring patients to their hospitals.
However, Rick Scott addresses the issue head-on in an ad. “I’m going to do something that politicians won’t — give you the unvarnished truth,” he says, looking into the camera. “What matters is that the company made mistakes, and as CEO I made mistakes and as CEO, I take responsibility and learn from it.”
The tea party has generally been among Scott’s biggest supporters. Billie Tucker, of the First Coast Tea Party, agreed with Scott’s message. “Part of the tea party movement is personal responsibility,” Tucker said. “If he comes out and says, ‘Hey, we screwed up. We fixed it,’ does that mean we never let him do anything again?”
Jeff Greene, on the other hand, seems like he could be a character in Michael Lewis’ book on the contrarian investors of the financial crisis The Big Short. He shorted subprime mortgages and bought credit default swaps for lucrative ends. Forbes wrote about his wealth in the Forbes 400 Billionaire’s List in 2008:
He did so by creating his own virtual hedge fund and buying credit default swaps that rose in value as subprime mortgages fell. Greene says the trade was up 1,400% in 18 months until the fall of 2007. That seems to have earned him a quick $800 million profit and catapulted Greene onto The Forbes 400 with a net worth of $1.4 billion.
Until recently, he lived in a 63,000 square-foot home in Beverly Hills called the “Palazzo di Amore,” had Mike Tyson as his best man for his 2007 wedding, and reportedly owned a 145-foot yacht and three private jets.
But in interviews, he emphasizes his modest Massachusetts roots. “My dad was a textile machinery dealer. … When we moved to Florida, my mom had to take a job as a waitress who was a college graduate to make ends meet,” he said in an editorial board meeting with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “When I first came to Florida, I was a busboy,” he added. When asked what kind of car he drives, he replied with New England modesty, “I have an old Range Rover. … It’s a 2006 Range Rover.”
The parties stand by their chosen men
The Democratic and Republican parties, however, have stood by their picked candidates.
The Republican Party of Florida and Republican-linked interest groups have attacked Rick Scott. Several top Florida Republicans sent a fiery letter to Rick Scott calling on him to stop “falsely and capriciously” attacking McCollum on the grounds that he had “stalled” an investigation into former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer, who was arrested for funneling party money into a front group that he used for his own personal wealth. A Republican-linked interest group, Alliance for America’s Future, ran attack ads on Rick Scott’s tenure at Columbia/HCA.
The Florida Democratic Party still considers Meek to be its candidate, according to a spokesman from the Florida Democratic Party. Meek’s campaign created a website called truthaboutjeffgreene.com, accusing him of helping to cause the economic crisis.
In a mirror image of that site, the McCollum campaign created a website called rickscottfraudfiles.com, attacking his record at Columbia/HCA.
What’s to come
Greene and Meek have agreed to debate on June 22.
Neither candidate has released financial disclosure forms or campaign finance reports, since they announced their campaigns late enough in April to miss a quarterly deadline. Both candidates have till July to file their financial disclosure forms. Federal Election Commission filings will be due by July 15. Neither candidate has released their tax returns, as the Rubio and Crist candidates have done. The Greene campaign said it will not release tax returns since it is not required by law.
Though the Florida Senate primary between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist has gotten the lion’s share of national attention, the Democratic Senate primary and Republican gubernatorial primary are turning out to be just as competitive.