Rick Scott's GOP challenger has deep pockets, is willing to spend

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has increasingly tacked to the right in recent years, including mounting a failed challenge to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But his latest primary challenger says it’s all an act.

“Rick has done a really great job of marketing. But if you separate his rhetoric from his record — ‘the wrecking ball in D.C.?’ Seriously, he’s accomplished absolutely nothing in five years in the U.S. Senate,” businessman Keith Gross said.

Gross is not shy about why he’s willing to part with tens of millions of dollars to unseat Scott, who has also largely self-funded his political career.

“It’s because he’s an absolute ineffective crook, basically. If I thought there was an awesome senator in that seat. … I would be looking at a different seat. Where can I make a difference?” Gross said in an extensive interview with The Hill.

“But the biggest positive impact I know I can make is in the U.S. Senate by unseating that guy.”

Gross, like some of Scott’s Democratic challengers, has picked up on the senator’s pledge to become “the least popular man in Washington.”

“He says he is the most unlikely guy in Washington, yet the entire party establishment is backing him, trying to place their thumbs on the scale.”

Scott’s campaign did not provide a comment for this story.

Gross’s run could fizzle. Scott, even if not well-liked, flipped a key Senate seat for the GOP in 2018 and is a reliable self-funder who turned a purple seat into one rated as “likely Republican” by the Cook Political Report.

That means the GOP would like to avoid a contentious primary that raises Democratic hopes, particularly as Scott, along with Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), is the closest thing Republicans have to a vulnerable senator this cycle.

The national party is backing Scott, raising questions about Gross’s past, including business dealings and two runs for the Georgia legislature in 2008 and 2010 as a Democrat.

“Whether he’s running as a Democrat in Georgia or running businesses into the ground in Maryland, Keith Gross has a long record of failure and fraud. Rick Scott is going to crush him,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Philip Letsou.

Gross’s campaign is growing increasingly chafed over events held by state and local Republican committees in Florida that they see as openly supportive of Scott, potentially violating the party’s bylaws or campaign laws.

Those actions, Gross said, mirror the GOP’s treatment of former President Trump, whom Gross has endorsed.

“The party is putting their thumb on the scale in favor of one candidate over another in my election, and with the presidential election, too. Like I said, they’re trying to railroad Donald Trump as well, trying to kick him off the ballot through a loyalty pledge,” Gross said.

The Melbourne, Fla., lawyer and businessman supports Trump’s claims questioning the validity of the 2020 election, calling it a “corrupt process.”

Gross used the allegations of electoral fraud to segue into another attack on Scott.

“We had the last election basically stolen from us — it was a corrupt process. And the last thing I want to do is stand by while we have some fraud — Rick Scott has literally built his entire career on fraud,” he said.

Throughout his political career, Scott has fielded attacks over the source of his fortune.

In 1997, he was forced to resign as head of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., at the time the country’s largest private hospital operator, following raids on the company by FBI and IRS investigators.

The case ended in 2003 with a $1.7 billion settlement over what the Department of Justice called the “largest health care fraud in U.S. history.”

In 2018, former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) tried to use the issue against Scott, who ran an ad saying the settlement showed he took “responsibility” for the fraud at his former company.

Still, Scott’s cash reserves have fueled his two successful campaigns for governor, and his 2018 victory over Nelson by about 10,000 votes.

“It is a strong allegation, and I believe the only reason he’s been elected is because he’s never had a serious challenge. If you look at his last election, he outspent his opponent 2-to-1 – $30 million to $60 million — he outspent and he still won that election with less than half of 1 percent,” Gross said.

“He’s not gonna be able to win this election, because I don’t think voters are gonna let him buy a seat this time.”

By Gross’s calculations, both candidates have equivalent fortunes, just north of $250 million.

Though Gross believes the GOP donor class will side with Scott, he’s ready to keep up.

“If I have to spend $20, $30 million to get the message out of my own cash, I’m not putting that off the table. I mean, I’m gonna keep adding to the pile as much as I need to to get this job done,” he said.

But Gross added he doesn’t expect the race to come down to money.

“If we spend enough to get our message out, I don’t think it would matter if he outspends me 5-to-1. He can’t win this election because people don’t want him,” said Gross.

—Updated at 11:06 a.m.


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