- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2010

The road to reconciliation commenced even before the balloons and confetti were swept away at Rick Scott’s victory party.

Florida Republican Party Chairman John Thrasher at midnight Wednesday - moments after the Republican renegade candidate’s surprise defeat of party favorite son Bill McCollum - fired off a press release congratulating the winner and praising him for his “vision for Florida.”

“I’m confident that Republicans across the state will rally around our new nominee as we move forward together towards the November election,” Mr. Thrasher said.

The kudos were in sharp contrast to an almost daily exchange of barbs between Florida Republican leaders, who strongly backed Mr. McCollum, and the outsider candidate who never has held public office.

Yet while each side of the intraparty squabble inflicted and absorbed some brutal hits, there are signs the wounds are beginning to heal.

“I think they’re going to come together out of necessity,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, who covers gubernatorial races for the Cook Political Report. “Once everybody [in the party] sort of gets over the shock, I think that they’re going to come around and be with him.”

Mr. Thrasher, who meet with Mr. Scott on Thursday to begin mapping out a coordinated strategy, said he expects the party and the Scott campaign to work together.

Mr. Scott in turn has agreed to help raise money for the Florida Republican Party, which is badly in need of cash, particularly after subsidizing Mr. McCollum’s failed campaign.

The Florida GOP “bet on the wrong horse, but they will certainly be coming and try to beg forgiveness, and I think that’s going to happen on both sides,” said Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political science professor. “Without question, the party will come together.”

Mr. Scott, a multimillionaire health care executive, only entered the race in April. But thanks in part to a barrage of TV ads he quickly carved out a strong campaign that tapped into Republican voter frustrations more successfully than Mr. McCollum, the state attorney general and a former congressman.

Mr. Scott’s victory was a blessing in disguise for the Florida Republican Party, Mr. Smith said, because of his ability to energize and mobilize the party base in the general election race against Democrat Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer, and independent Lawton “Bud” Chiles III, whose father was a former Florida Democratic governor and U.S. senator.

McCollum supporters “will fall in line, and we will have high partisan support for [Mr. Scott],” Mr. Smith said. “Had McCollum been the nominee, I think a lot of those who came out to vote for Rick Scott would’ve been disillusioned with the status quo and Bill McCollum.”

But the Scott/GOP courtship may be slightly off-balance. With Mr. Scott’s support base appearing more loyal to him than the party, the candidate is in a position to demand more of the party than it asks of him.

The state party also has been reeling from a scandal involving former party chairman Jim Greer, who was arrested in June on charges he ran a scam to bilk the party, and can’t afford to shun a winning - and wealthy - candidate.

And with the congressional redistricting set to begin next year, Republicans are desperate to recapture the governor’s mansion.

“The Republican Party is going to come back together, [but] Rick Scott is going to hold the cards in terms of the reform that the party needs to undergo that has caused a lot of consternation among party faithful,” Mr. Smith said. “The question is, what does Rick Scott want out of it, as opposed to if Bill McCollum was the nominee, what did the party leaders want from Bill McCollum?”

Mr. McCollum, still smarting over his surprise defeat, says he’s not sure if he will support Mr. Scott for the Nov. 2 general election, suggesting his former opponent lacks proper morals and ethics.

“I still have serious questions, and I have had them throughout the time that I’ve had the very brief acquaintanceship with Rick Scott about issues of his character, his integrity, his honesty,” he told reporters Thursday.

Mr. McCollum’s reluctance is understandable, giving the acerbic nature of his primary fight. He hammered Mr. Scott over his business dealings over a chain of health care clinics Mr. Scott co-founded that the state is investigating for possible overbilling. Mr. Scott fired back, accusing Mr. McCollum of abusing his position as attorney general by using state investigators to harass the company and its employees.

Mr. Scott has touted his business experience and accused Mr. McCollum during the primary campaign of being a political insider who doesn’t have the best interests of Floridians at heart.

The party also wasn’t shy to bash Mr. Scott. Only three days before the primary election, Mr. Thrasher publicly chastised Mr. Scott for having “orchestrated a multifaceted campaign of misinformation in an effort to mislead Florida voters and confuse the facts” regarding the arrest and indictment of former party leader Mr. Greer.

Yet most, if not all, will be forgiven if Mr. Scott wins in November.

“Everyone else in the Republican Party of Florida has genuflected to Rick Scott. They have gotten down on bended knee and said, ‘Uh, let’s put this behind us,’ because politically they’re very similar, Rick Scott and Bill McCollum,” Mr. Smith said.