Religious Voters Convert, Turn to Rick Scott
Around the State
Florida Republican lawmakers and major contributors who fiercely opposed Rick Scott during the party’s August primary for governor wasted little time sliding over to support the nominee.
But now a big voting bloc – which, similarly, had backed primary loser Bill McCollum – is poised to make a remarkable conversion and embrace Scott in numbers that could prove decisive in November.
The Christian Coalition of Florida plans to blanket conservative churches with 3 million voters’ guides on Sun., Oct. 17 – the day before early voting begins in the state. The guide, which will cover the positions of candidates on abortion, gay adoption, private school vouchers and a host of other, so-called family issues, is expected to steer socially conservative voters toward Scott and away from Democrat Alex Sink.
“We don’t endorse,” said Bill Stephens, the coalition’s executive director. “But on paper, Rick is clearly going to look like the more conservative candidate.”
Just as such top Republicans as state GOP Chairman John Thrasher and incoming House and Senate leaders Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, made a remarkable reversal following McCollum’s primary defeat, most social conservative groups and voters appear ready to side with Scott.
But how strongly religious conservative voters support Scott -- a candidate many were wary of less than two months ago -- remains a critical question in the governor’s race, which polls show the Republican leading narrowly.
Some religious conservatives say they feel many voters remain uncomfortable with Scott, a former Columbia/HCA health-care executive, accused by McCollum of allowing abortions at his hospitals, and whose company paid a record $1.7 billion to settle Medicaid and Medicare fraud charges three years after he resigned.
“It’s not ardent support at all for Scott,” said Rev. David Swanson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando. “I think among many conservatives there remain some real concerns about his integrity. But it comes down to a choice that may be the lesser of two evils.”
The Florida Family Policy Council and Florida Right-to-Life are among those expected to join the Christian Coalition in issuing voter guides and what amounts to veiled endorsements of Scott as the governor’s campaign enters its final weeks. John Stemberger, head of the Florida Family group, had been a strong supporter of McCollum, while Right-to-Life split its primary endorsement between Scott and McCollum.
Scott has tried to patch up differences with religious conservatives, meeting with some of the movement’s leaders before and after the primary.
“We are not taking anything for granted,” said Scott spokesman Joe Kildea. “But these are people who agree with Rick, and he generally agrees with them.”
Sink, meanwhile, gains little traction among such voters.
Her endorsement by the pro-abortion rights group, Emily’s List, more than a year ago pushed conservatives away, leaders said. As a Democrat, she is now also being cast as a big government advocate, another line of separation with social conservatives.
Although Sink sides generally with conservatives in disapproving same-sex marriage, she supports civil unions, gay adoption and draws support from the state’s largest teachers’ union, hurting her among voters who see “parental empowerment” as a tenet of public education.
“It’s disappointing, but not surprising,” Sink spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said of Scott’s rising support among religious conservatives. “They seem to be putting partisan politics above ethics and integrity. We remember the issues that were brought up in the primary.”
Support from religious conservative voters helped President Bush win Florida in 2004, proved a potent force for Gov. Jeb Bush throughout his two terms as the state’s chief executive, and inspired Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher to feverishly court them in his unsuccessful run for the party’s nomination two years later.
This year, however, the influence of religious conservatives has been largely overtaken by Tea Party activists, whose motivation seems driven more by economic than social concerns. But activists say there is strong overlap between these two segments of the GOP base.
Similarly, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio is a favorite of conservative voters – whose support is further fueled by what some leaders say is a powerful antipathy toward rival Charlie Crist, running as an independent candidate.
Crist antagonized conservatives earlier this year by vetoing legislation requiring women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound, a measure supporters had hailed as a “significant pro-life” bill.
“Scott will be helped by conservatives’ disdain for Charlie Crist,” said Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council, which helped power Florida’s voter-approved constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. “There may have been a lack of enthusiasm for Scott before, because we didn’t know him, and we knew Bill McCollum and trusted him.
“But there’s no comparison between the candidates now. People will respond,” Stemberger said.