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Gov. Scott forms new PAC ahead of likely U.S. Senate run

Gov. Scott forms new PAC ahead of likely U.S. Senate run
Gov. Rick Scott looks on as fire fighters are honored at a cabinet meeting, Tuesday, April 14, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) ORG XMIT: FLSC101 (Steve Cannon / AP)

TALLAHASSEE – Ahead of a likely 2018 run for U.S. Senate, Gov. Rick Scott has set up a political action committee designed to appeal to younger and Hispanic voters.

The super PAC, called New Republican and announced last week, is meant to sell the GOP's philosophy to young voters who want less government in their lives, Scott said.

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"We need to go after the young. They believe in this, if you go talk to them," Scott told Fox News on Wednesday. "They like Uber, they like Lyft, they like choices. They like open government, they're not looking for big government."

New Republican will be run by Melissa Stone, Scott's top political adviser, who was named as its executive director.

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The committee is seen by political strategists in both parties as a vehicle to raise money ahead of Scott's anticipated bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018.

"He is running for Senate. That's all this is about," said Brian Burgess, a GOP operative and former Scott spokesman.

A prodigious fundraiser, Scott has pulled in more than $3.1 million to his Let's Get to Work political committee this year. But money for a state political committee can't be used to run for a federal office.

Super PACs can take in and spend unlimited donations from individuals and corporations but aren't allowed to donate directly to candidate's campaigns. They are supposed to operate independently from a candidate's campaign.

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Scott hasn't officially announced whether he'll run for Nelson's seat, but he has been speaking out more on federal issues. In recent weeks he's called for Venezuelan dissidents to be freed and boasted of his close relationship with President Donald Trump. He's also pointed out his ability to garner federal dollars for state projects.

"He's always been more comfortable talking about federal issues. He's always been more interested in them," said Steve Schale, who helped run Barack Obama's campaign in Florida in 2008 and Alex Sink's unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2010. "He's frankly run both of his governor's races in a lot of ways on federal issues."

Scott's forays into national politics have come as he's been unable to persuade his fellow Republicans in the Legislature to get on board with his agenda.

His requests for $200 million to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike in Lake Okeechobee, $100 million for tourism marketing and $85 million for business incentives all were rejected by lawmakers in the $82.4 billion budget passed earlier this month. Scott has yet to officially receive the budget from the Legislature but has hinted he could veto the entire bill, bringing lawmakers back to Tallahassee to try again.

But squabbling with lawmakers in Tallahassee won't necessarily damage Scott's chances in 2018.

"Taking on a Republican-controlled Legislature in a race where he probably won't have a strong primary challenger doesn't hurt him at all," Burgess said. "In fact, it enables him to [move] slightly more into the middle where he has to be for a general election."

Schale said he suspects the New Republican committee is Scott's way of trying to expand his base of voters ahead of the 2018 election, which he thinks could turn into a backlash against Trump. As a tactic, though, it's unlikely to work unless he diverts from Trump's policies, he said.

"I don't think the Republicans have an outreach problem with African-American and Hispanic voters; they have a policy problem," Schale said. "Until they're willing to address that they can raise all the money in the world for entities like [New Republican], and it's not going to change the fact that Donald Trump has people knocking down doors and taking children and deporting them."

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Democrats, though, have scoffed at Scott's electoral chances before and shouldn't do so a third time, Schale conceded.

"A lot of people underestimate just how shrewd of a political operative Rick Scott is," Schale said.

grohrer@orlandosentinel.com or (850) 222-5564

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