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National Politics

Robocalls, canned email may be a sign of GOP concern for 2012

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 03:16 PM
TALLAHASSEE -

Michael Joyce is tired of receiving phone calls from Gov. Rick Scott.

Over the last couple of months, the governor has robocalled the Inverness resident at least three times, touting bills he has signed, spending he has vetoed and Florida's steady, if small, drops in unemployment over the last five months.

Enough, said Joyce, who has been awakened twice by the calls, which are sponsored by the state Republican Party.

A Vermont transplant, Joyce has voted Republican in the past, though not in Florida. He recently called the state party to complain about the phone calls.

"I find them kind of repulsive. If I wanted to know what he was doing, I'd read the paper, watch the news or go online. I don't need him calling me at my house."

To date, the state party has paid for four recorded calls featuring Scott. It also sponsors a website asking supporters to email canned messages of praise about the governor to newspaper editors around the state.

The party has even filmed a web video of Scott's mother, Esther Scott, assuring Floridians that her son is "a good boy" because he's fulfilling campaign pledges.

"I don't know that I can think of another time where, six months into an administration, the party has needed to do robocalls and email efforts to try to gin up support for the governor," said political analyst Brian Crowley, a former political reporter for the Palm Beach Post.

The reason is simple, Crowley said: the governor's approval ratings, which Qunnipiac University measured at 29 percent in May.

"His popularity has plummeted. If I'm a political strategist for the Republican National Committee and know how important Florida is in the 2012 election, I'd be concerned that in June 2011, Florida's Republican governor's poll numbers are not what they ought to be."

The state party's flurry of public relations activity around the governor has indeed fueled speculation that while many won't say so publicly, Republicans fear that Scott will have a drag effect on their party's political chances in the 2012 election.

Last month, Public Policy Polling, a left-leaning firm, found that if Scott's predecessor, Charlie Crist, ran as a Democrat against Scott for governor today, Crist would win 56-34 percent. The same firm measured Scott's approval ratings at 33 percent.

Faced with poll numbers like that, it's not surprising that the party would intervene long before the 2012 election, said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida.

But canned letters of support and robocalls -- which tend to annoy people -- probably aren't going to help much, he said.

Individual calls may not have much effect, but an organized outreach effort will, said state Sen. John Thrasher of Jacksonville, former chairman of the state GOP. "It's all cumulative."

Thrasher, who steered the party through the 2010 election season, said it's neither unusual nor inappropriate for the party to bolster a sitting Republican governor's efforts to reach his political base.

With Scott in the governor's seat, he said, Republicans have had a banner year cutting taxes, spending and regulation. That's a message the party wants to spread as it prepares for political redistricting and the 2012 election season. "It's never a non-election year."

Asked about Scott's low ratings, GOP political consultant Rick Wilson said Scott faces the same problem as President Barack Obama and other politicians: a sour economy.

"A large portion of what is happening with Rick Scott is not driven by good or bad PR or policy decisions," Wilson said. "It's driven by the fact that Florida has 10.1 percent unemployment … The economic overlay that's weighing down on Rick Scott is real, it's substantial and it can't be underestimated."

That's true, said Paulson, who is a Republican -- but that's not all. "The person who got the governor into this trouble was the governor, and the only person who can get him out of it is the governor."

Scott has made a number of policy decisions that, while consistent with the political principles on which he campaigned, have nonetheless proven unpopular. Among them, Paulson said: Scott's rejection of $2.4 billion from the federal government to build high-speed rail, which was expected to create thousands of jobs.

The political scientist compared Scott's inflexibility on policy to that of ex-President Jimmy Carter. Both leaders have had a "my way or the highway" approach to governing, Paulson said, at times alienating their own parties.

Crowley attributed the governor's unpopularity partly to his difficult relations with the mainstream media. The party, he said, appears to be attempting some damage control.

"I think they're learning some things the hard way," he said of Scott's administration. "You can't be in constant combat mode with the Tallahassee press corps."

A spokesman for Scott deferred comment on this story to state Republican Party officials, who did not respond to requests for comment.

There is a general sense within the party, Thrasher said, that the administration's communications strategy has been less than perfect. But he expects improvement, he said, as Stephen MacNamara, a veteran of Tallahassee politics, takes over as Scott's new chief of staff.

The popularity of sitting governors has limited effect on voters' choices in other races, said Republican political consultant Brett Doster.

Doster, who was deputy director of the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign in Florida and executive director in 2004, noted that while Gov. Jeb Bush's popularity was "stratospheric" in 2000, his brother George barely won the state. Bush's popularity was more or less the same when then-President Bush won Florida more soundly in 2004, by 5 percent.

"If Rick Scott were corrupt -- let's say he had committed a criminal misdeed, or was being investigated like [former Illinois Gov.] Rod Blagojevich, then you'd find presidential candidates distancing themselves because they're concerned that corruption might run off," Doster said. "But just sagging poll numbers -- I'm one of the people who doesn't think it matters a whole lot."


cwhittenburg@tampatrib.com (850) 222-8382

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