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Fla.'s Unpopular Governor Could Hinder GOP In 2012

After signing a Florida budget that cuts billions, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has seen his approval rating drop.
After signing a Florida budget that cuts billions, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has seen his approval rating drop.

In his first six months as Florida's governor, Republican Rick Scott has had a major impact on the state.

He's cut spending and rejected $2 billion in federal money for high-speed rail. He's required state employees to begin contributing part of their salaries to their pensions and signed a law tightening restrictions on groups that register new voters.

Scott says those achievements have fulfilled his campaign promises. But they've also hurt his popularity among Florida voters, according to a recent poll.

Major Budget Cuts

In central Florida, The Villages is a popular stop for politicians. It's a town made up almost entirely of retirement communities. And that's where Scott chose to sign the state budget — before a crowd largely made up of Tea Party supporters.

The governor told the crowd the budget is a lengthy document, with more than 3,000 individual line items.

"I know this because I looked at every single line item in the budget," Scott said. Picking up a pen, he continued, "Not all of those line items made it past this veto pen."

Notably missing from the crowd were Democrats. In an unusual turn for an official state ceremony, police removed Democratic activists from the event, which the governor's office later chalked up to confusion.

For Scott, it was a moment of celebration. Although a Republican, he hasn't always seen eye to eye with leaders in Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature. In the end however, members largely went along with his proposals — to reform public pensions, cut spending on education, slash environmental regulations and eliminate curbs on development.

At the event in The Villages, Scott took pride in cutting an additional $615 million out of the budget with his line-item vetoes.

Scott A Hero To Tea Party, Not Others

Among members of Florida's Tea Party groups, it's made him a hero.

"I think he's done a good job," says Charles Robertson. He's the founder of a Tea Party group in Broward County, a place where the budget cuts are already having a direct impact. The school district there has announced it's laying off 1,400 teachers.

Robertson says Scott is just making good on the promises he made as a candidate.

"He's in a difficult position where he has to make tough choices," Robertson says. "And you know there's going to be special interest groups that are affected and it's going to cost him in the polls. I understand that."

Although popular with the Tea Party, Scott's not doing well with other Florida voters. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found that 57 percent of Floridians disapprove of the job Scott is doing as governor. Only 29 percent approve — the lowest rating of any governor in any state in which polls have been conducted.

Scott's a former hospital CEO who ran for governor on the promise he would operate Florida's state government like a business. He spent about $70 million of his own money on the race and eked out a razor-slim win, becoming governor with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, says that's one reason why his approval ratings are so low.

"So he didn't have a lot of cushion to begin with," MacManus says. "And of course, he promised 700,000 new jobs. And Florida's economy is still very bad. And things haven't happened as rapidly as Floridians are used to."

At 10.8 percent, unemployment in Florida is still well above the national average. And nearly 1 in 5 homeowners is behind on mortgage payments.

Republicans Distancing Themselves

In a state where all the top offices and the Legislature are controlled by Republicans, Democrats think they see an opening.

Dave Beattie, a pollster, worked on the campaign of Jacksonville's newly elected mayor, Alvin Brown. Brown is black and the first Democrat to win that office in 20 years.

The poor economy was perhaps the major factor in the race. But Beattie says another factor was that Scott campaigned for Brown's opponent.

"The majority of voters — particularly conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans — that were part of the coalition that Alvin Brown was able to put together in Jacksonville, had concerns about Rick Scott," Beattie says.

In another mayoral race, in Miami-Dade County, something similar is going on. Two Republican candidates in a runoff are taking pains to distance themselves from Scott.

Political analysts say it's too early to tell what impact Scott may have on 2012 — whether his current unpopularity will help Democrats in Florida — including President Obama. But more important both for Obama and for Scott will be whether Floridians begin to see improvement in their state's economy.

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