The Inscrutable Mr. Scott, America’s Least Popular Governor

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Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks to the media at the Fort Lauderdale Police station on June 3, 2011 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Florida Governor Rick Scott was in Canada last week, trumpeting the news that three companies there are bringing operations, and more than 200 jobs, to the Sunshine State. The deals were started by Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, before Scott took office in January. But Scott is taking credit for them anyway – and who can blame him? If you were America’s most unpopular governor, posting a voter-approval rating of 29% after less than six months in Tallahassee, you’d be willing to go to the North Pole to beg Santa Claus to relocate to Daytona Beach.

Now that the dust from Scott’s first budget battle has settled, it’s time to revisit America’s favorite dysfunctional swing state and ask: Why have Floridians turned so sour on their new Governor? Are they simply taking out their anger at the recession – the state’s unemployment rate still sits at almost 11% – on whomever’s sitting in the Governor’s mansion? Is it because, as Scott’s office insisted in a recent statement, he “wasn’t elected to be most popular” but to make “tough decisions” on slashing state spending, including an almost 8% cut in education? Or could it be that Floridians are feeling buyer’s remorse – that they fear Scott is ultimately more interested in serving the Tea Party’s government-eradication agenda than he is in serving them?

(Why Rick Scott went to war with a Republican legislature.)

It’s likely a combination of all three. A politician’s approval mark doesn’t land in George W. Bush territory just because voters are grumpy or because of a few tough calls. It’s usually because they think, as voters so loudly told President Obama last year, that their leader is taking them in the wrong direction. In the case of Florida, America’s fourth most populous state, and also its most inexcusably low-wage and low-tech one, that means they probably think Scott isn’t steering them toward the kind of economic development needed to create the “700,000 jobs in seven years” that he pledged to create in his campaign.

Scott, of course, has three-and-a-half years to fix the awful polling numbers released in a May 25 Quinnipiac University poll. And according to observers like Mike Randle, editor of the Randle Report, which follows business and politics in the South, the Governor “is actually doing some good things.” Among them was hiring Gray Swoope to take over Enterprise Florida, the state’s official economic development organization. As Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s development point man, Swoope lured powerhouses like Toyota and GE Aviation to a state that high-tech industries once considered to be a Dixie basket case. What’s more, says Randle, Scott has called for a stouter state incentive fund to lure business and research ventures to the Florida peninsula.

(Were Rick Scott’s budget cuts too deep?)

But Scott seems to go out of his way to make Floridians forget about the positive aspects of his tenure. When a candidate wins a gubernatorial election with less than half the vote, as Scott did last November, he usually extends a hand to the majority of the electorate that picked someone else. Scott, a former healthcare CEO and Republican political novice who spent almost $75 million of his personal fortune on his campaign, estranged those voters by striding into Tallahassee, thumb on nose, as if he carried a mandate to enact sweeping change. “He really seemed to be rubbing it in that he was not financially dependent on anyone and therefore the only voters he needed to please were his Tea Party base,” says political scientist Aubrey Jewett of the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “He had no policy mandate except to get the state’s economy going again.”

And that’s perhaps where Scott has alienated Sunshine State voters most. In February, he rejected $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money for high speed rail in Florida, a project he derided as wasteful but which the legislature estimated could create as many as 30,000 jobs in a high-tech industry. “Scott really blew it on that call,” says Randle, who is also editor of Southern Business & Development magazine. Attracting investment means making investments, says Randle, who recently wrote that “while Scott is chopping and lopping every state expense he can get his hands on, successful economic development doesn’t work that way.” (Why Scott prefers a polarized environment.)

Scott, who had vowed to renounce all stimulus money, looked hypocritical when it was discovered that he actually kept $370 million of the federal money in this year’s $69 billion state budget. The budget itself, which would have been harder to balance if the GOP-controlled legislature hadn’t blocked Scott’s bid to slash Florida’s already low corporate tax rate, drew more voter raspberries. That’s largely because Scott and other conservatives seemed obsessed with ramming through legislation like bills that would require welfare recipients to take drug tests. His record $615 million in budget vetoes, some of which cut real pork but many of which gutted programs like food pantries for the poor, didn’t endear him to citizens either.

Nor did his more than $169 million in vetoes for projects in higher education, an underachieving sector that Florida desperately needs to improve if it’s ever going to host the kind of research-and-development scene that entices higher-paying industry. “How can you cut higher ed like that,” Randle asks, “and expect to recruit the top university R&D talent you need?”

Pundits like Jewett offer one possible answer: Scott may not be so concerned about a second term. “For better or worse, he’s a true believer,” says Jewett, who adds he’d be “shocked if Scott took even one step toward the [political] center” to repair his voter-approval standings. “I really think he doesn’t care if he gets re-elected.” Randle concedes that Scott “is an enigma” in that sense. “I see some good things happening with him and I see some really bizarre things happening,” he says. “You get the feeling that he’ll either save or sink Florida.” Right now, Floridians have that sinking feeling.

(PHOTOS: Portraits of the Tea Party movement.)