Then Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll claps as Gov. Rick Scott gives the FAMU Marching 100 a thumbs up as they performed during the 2011 inaugural parade along Monroe Street in Tallahassee. / Phil Sears/Tallahassee Democrat
Within hours of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll’s resignation Wednesday, Republican leaders and grassroots activists started looking ahead to Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election next year and the potential fallout.
Few found any positives.
“Scott has a trifecta of problems now. Before this, you could say it was just a deuce,” said Chris Ingram, a Republican consultant who runs the influential conservative blog “Irreverent View.”
Most recent polls don’t show Scott running strong, and at least one of his goals — Medicaid expansion — appeared DOA this week after legislative committees’ rejection, Ingram said. “Now his hand-picked lieutenant governor, the person he judged best able to step into the governor’s chair if needed, resigns in the face of what looks like at least ethics issues, and at worst could involve criminal activity. This is a bad thing for Rick Scott, and it’s not good for the Republican Party as a whole.”
Peter Bergerson, a political science professor at FGCU, agreed. “It’s a real shame,” he said. “The last thing the public wants to hear about now is another politician in this kind of trouble…..if this were just one isolated incident for Scott, politically it might not be so damaging. But he has other problems, and there’s a cumulative effect taking place here.”
But Bergerson and others warned about a rush to judgment on Carroll, pointing out she has not been charged with wrongdoing. “We really need to wait and see the extent of it,” he said. “But the resignation exists, and the public’s trust factor is pretty low to begin with. It’ll become an issue about Scott’s judgment.”
Scott will engage in rapid damage control, Bergerson said; how well he manages that will be critical. “He’ll try to make lemonade, but it’s going to be very hard to get rid of that bitter taste.”
One strategist, however, downplayed the effects on Scott’s political future.
“There’s no doubt that Rick Scott has had a bad week,” said Roy Lenardson, a consultant in Naples who’s worked with Republican candidates around the country. “But I’m not sure this resignation will have that much of an impact” on Scott’s re-election.
Most voters don’t pay much attention to a lieutenant governor, and the 2014 election is distant, he said.
He believes Scott’s “flip-flop” in supporting Medicaid expansion, after years of fighting the Affordable Health Care Act, is far more damaging.
But Bergerson and Ingram said Scott’s opposition — whether a yet-to-emerge Republican primary challenger or the Democratic nominee — will make sure voters remember Carroll’s selection and departure.
Much also could depend on who Scott chooses to fill the position.
“I just hope it’s a woman,” said Michel Doherty, a GOP activist in Lee County. Carroll was beloved by GOP women, and seemed to have qualities that made her perfect for the post, Doherty said.
“She’s a female, a minority, she’s very smart and well-spoken, she just seemed like the ideal, exactly what we needed,” Doherty said.
Scott said Wednesday he will not consider selecting a replacement until after the Legislative session ends May 3.
While many voters say they want elected officials with experience in the business and corporate world, such as Carroll had, her involvement in the business’ investigation point to the vulnerabilities of such a background, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor who specializes in Florida politics.
“Anything that ever happened in that business will be held against you,” MacManus said. “The politician will own any issues that happened in their business,” and controversy that’s not uncommon in the business world can be seen differently in politics.
“That makes business leaders think twice about getting into politics,” she said.
Carroll has not been charged, and may never be, MacManus said. “But the taint is still there, and when someone has broken major barriers regarding gender and race, especially, to have that tainted is the worst thing possible.”
Scott, meanwhile, faces a tough re-election, and this just makes it harder, MacManus said, noting even if voters do forget, they’ll likely be reminded over and over. “With every appointment, (the governor) can make some people happy, and some people angry, and he has to live with that for good or bad,” she said. “That’s why the vetting is so intense.”
Carroll survived vetting to be chosen as Scott’s running mate, but it was unclear Thursday how thorough it was or whether the governor — then making his first run for elected office — and his staff found hints of the issue now under investigation.
Carroll resigned because of consulting work she did in 2009 and 2010 — while a member of the state House — for a group that represented itself as a nonprofit helping veterans. The group is under investigation for illegal gambling and misrepresentation involving Internet cafes that also are sometimes called Internet casinos; some officers have been arrested under charges that include racketeering.
Florida’s Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry released a brief written statement Wednesday praising Carroll as “a great leader for our party and our state.”
He did not mention future issues, but said “her resignation is disappointing, but she made the right decision to protect both her family and the work she has done to move our state forward.”
Florida’s Democratic Chairwoman Allison Tant, meanwhile, gave a hint of things to come in her statement:
Scott may have been elected with the expectation of solving problems, she said, but Floridians “instead got a scandal-plagued governor and a revolving staff door.” Scott’s administration has “made a mockery of the governor’s office — embarrassing Floridians while failing to accomplish his legislative priorities. Scott campaigned on changing Tallahassee but his first three years have been more of the same corruption and waste.”