For the first time since the 1870s, the Republican Party controls the three most powerful positions in Florida’s political hierarchy — presenting what you might call a good problem for conservatives.
While new Gov. Ron DeSantis and new U.S. Sen. Rick Scott line up ideologically with Sen. Marco Rubio in a way that could push a swing state further to the right, Florida’s big fish may be headed for confrontation. All three have high aspirations and big agendas, and even in the country’s third-largest state there’s only so much influence and media attention to go around.
Signs of friction emerged immediately as Scott and DeSantis were sworn into office last week, as did speculation that all three could be on a collision course for the 2024 presidential nomination. Scott, who ascended from the governor’s office to the U.S. Senate, where he replaced moderate Democrat Bill Nelson, has been at the center of the drama.
But Republicans also have reason to believe that the party’s new power trio will capitalize on conservatives’ tightening grasp on a state that acts as a presidential bellwether. And they hope that disputes over appointments and apparent snubs are just overblown growing pains.
“It’s like having three All Stars,” said Republican Party of Florida Vice Chairman Christian Ziegler, comparing the situation to the star-studded Miami Heat teams that won two NBA championships in the beginning of the decade. “It’s like the Miami Heat’s Big 3 with LeBron James.”
But even those powerhouse Miami Heat teams with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh stumbled in their first year, tripping over internal drama and struggling to gel on the basketball court before winning two titles in four years (coincidentally the amount of time left on DeSantis’ and Rubio’s terms). And in the first week since Scott left the governor’s mansion for the U.S. Senate and DeSantis moved into Scott’s old digs, the two men have clashed over political appointments and the spotlight.
Rubio’s relationship with Scott, meanwhile, has been politically awkward at times. Scott encouraged his friend, Carlos Beruff, to stay in the race against Rubio in 2016 after the incumbent U.S. Senator reneged on a promise not to run for reelection and sought to keep his seat following an ill-fated presidential bid. And last year, Rubio continued to have a warm relationship with Nelson throughout the Democrat’s campaign against Scott.
“They’re all going to compete with each other,” said an amused Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala. “Look already at Scott and DeSantis. Scott made a whole bunch of appointments and DeSantis is not happy. And Rubio? Whether they all want to run for president or not I have no idea, but it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Scott rankled DeSantis’ team ahead of the transition, most notably by ignoring a request to leave dozens of appointments to fill board openings to the incoming governor. Scott went ahead anyway, waiting until the Friday before DeSantis was sworn in to fill more than 70 positions — many of which are expected to be rescinded by the new governor. And during DeSantis’ inaugural ceremony Tuesday, Scott was announced to the crowd and took the stage with his wife only to exit awkwardly to fly to Washington for his own ceremony before his successor could give his inaugural speech.
Later that afternoon, when Scott held his ceremonial swearing-in ceremony in the old U.S. Senate Chamber, all of Florida’s living Republican U.S. senators were in attendance save one: Rubio, who was on the floor of the upper chamber delivering a speech about Syria. That evening, Scott held a fundraiser and party at a time that conflicted with DeSantis’ inaugural ball in Tallahassee, forcing supporters of both to choose.
“That was seen by insiders as a galactic F-you to the new governor,” said one Republican source.
Still, all three men say they have positive working relationships with each other. And Scott, according to spokesman Chris Hartline, looks forward to working with Rubio and DeSantis and shares no tension with his elected colleagues.
“Governor DeSantis and Senators Scott and Rubio are united on the important issues facing Florida,” said Hartline, “and will work together to find solutions for Florida families.”
Hartline didn’t address a question about the timing of Scott’s inaugural fundraiser, or whether Scott invited Rubio to attend his ceremonial swearing-in ceremony. As for the former governor’s 11th hour appointments, Hartline called the job of filling vacancies one of the most important duties for Florida’s governors and said DeSantis “has every right to review each appointment.”
Still, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who helped lead those transition efforts, says that if there’s a combustible element in the new hierarchy, it’s Scott, a former hospital chain CEO who has always been more of a loner in politics.
“If your question is ‘Which of these three doesn’t belong?’ it’s clearly Rick Scott,” said Gaetz, who was a state lawmaker during Scott’s time as governor.
Gaetz brought up the 2016 Senate race for Rubio’s seat, noting that DeSantis, who had launched a campaign for what he thought would be an open Senate seat, quickly dropped out. He said Rubio was helpful throughout DeSantis’ campaign for governor.
“Rick Scott was tacitly working against Marco Rubio on behalf of his buddy, Carlos Beruff,” said Gaetz. “I don’t know if those guys have made it back on each others’ Christmas card lists.”
Rubio said the 2016 campaign would not affect his working relationship in the Senate with Scott.
“That’s a campaign where he had a friend that was already in the race,” Rubio said. “He didn’t control what that person does. As far as how we work together, I was able to work very well with a Democratic senator. Why wouldn’t I be able to work with a Republican?”
Rubio also said there isn’t much daylight between the trio on policy priorities.
“I don’t think there’s any debate between the three of us that the quality of the water, the tide into the Everglades and building resiliency against things like sea-level rise and the like is a priority for Florida,” said Rubio, adding that both he and Scott also see repairs to hurricane-damaged Tyndall Air Force Base as a priority.
Likewise, all three have publicly pushed the Trump administration to clamp down harder on leftist regimes in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. They’re anti-tax Republicans who condemn activist judges and government overreach.
The biggest potential divider among the trio may not be policy. It may be Trump — whose whims so often direct media coverage and force politicians to take sides — and the question of who will succeed Trump in 2024 if he were to win reelection next year.
Rubio is a possible candidate given his 2016 campaign. Scott’s decision to swear in late and give up seniority in the Senate is fueling speculation that he’ll run. And DeSantis, should he win reelection in 2022, could be positioned nicely for a presidential campaign as the governor of the nation’s largest swing state.
Still, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said he doesn’t expect any past campaign disagreements to matter when it comes to governing.
“I’m excited to have the three of them there because this is a big country and a big world with a lot of issues,” said Diaz-Balart. “I think ideologically they’re very in tune with each other. You’re always going to have differences in strategy. I just don’t see a conflict, I really don’t.”
Diaz-Balart noted that Scott’s transition from the private sector to governor in 2010 was a tougher transition than either Scott or DeSantis now face in their new offices, though he wasn’t able to say who of the trio would be LeBron, Bosh or Wade.
“The best athlete is probably Marco Rubio, if we’re going to go there, but I don’t know,” Diaz-Balart said with a laugh.
Rubio wasn’t able to say which one of the trio of Republicans would be comparable to Wade, James or Bosh. But his answer shows the inherent competitiveness among the three politically successful Republicans.
“I have no idea,” he said, chuckling. “Whichever one of them made more money that’s what I want to be.”