Florida’s governor often gets the credit, or the blame, for the condition of the state’s economy.
Maybe too much, given all the forces at play beyond his control. But the governor is the state’s top fiscal dog, more than any member of Congress or the Legislature. He gets to wear good times like a letterman’s jacket and bad times like a yoke.
Which brings us to Florida’s U.S. Senate race. Republican Gov. Rick Scott is trying to unseat three-term incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson.
Scott has a lot to crow about. The unemployment rate has fallen consistently during his 7½ years in office, and rests at a teensy 3.5 percent. More people are working. Output has grown. Productivity is up.
Home prices have come back. Construction is thriving in most of our metro areas. Small businesses in Florida (and around the country) are optimistic, according to several recent surveys.
The state continues to be a beacon for retirees and businesses looking for quality of life and low taxes. We’ve also set records for the number of tourists flowing into the state.
The economy even topped the $1 trillion mark on Scott’s watch.
Why isn’t all this positive news helping Scott run away with the Senate race? Shouldn’t he be crushing Nelson?
The easy answer is that the economy doesn’t matter to voters as much as we sometimes think. “It’s the economy, stupid!” makes more political hay when things aren’t so good. We expect the economy to do well, or at least not to stink. When it’s chugging along, more of us shift our focus to other concerns, whether they be crime, education, gun laws or immigration.
It may be that Scott is getting a bump from the economy, and that without it he’d be farther behind in the polls. It doesn’t help that he’s never been the most engaging politician, a little stiff, a little distant even when championing his legitimate economic wins.
And when potential voters say the economy is a priority, it can mean different things. For some, it translates to smaller government and deep spending cuts, part of Scott’s playbook. To others, it means tackling inequality and raising up the middle class, areas Scott hasn’t focused on as much.
Scott’s also vulnerable on a top pocketbook issue: affordable health care. After flip-flopping, he didn’t support extending federally subsidized health insurance to nearly 800,000 poor Floridians and railed against Obamacare, which includes protection for pre-existing conditions, calling it a “job killer.”
It hasn’t helped Scott that the blue-green algae plaguing Lake Okeechobee and its surrounding waterways in recent years has hammered local businesses and scared away tourists. Same goes for the intractable Red Tide and its massive fish kills, images of which get blasted around the world.
The governor didn’t create those two problems. But he can be criticized for being so focused on spending cuts, including to environmental programs, that he lost sight of how a healthy environment contributes to the state’s bottom line.
Finally, the economy isn’t that good for everyone. The average worker hasn’t seen much growth in wages in the past decade and the state remains too reliant on low-paying jobs. There’s a feeling that only the upper classes benefit in the current cycle, whether it be from big corporate tax cuts or rising stock markets.
At this point, counting out Scott would be a mistake. He’s deft at the divide and conquer style of politics so popular these days. He also knows how to win a close race. Just ask his past two Democratic opponents, who came within a percentage point of the Governor’s Mansion.
But I wouldn’t take for granted that he can parlay his economic successes into a U.S. Senate seat.