Sen. Rick Scott, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, came out strongly Thursday against the bipartisan gun bill before it passed the upper chamber, putting more daylight between him and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who made the gun deal possible.
Mr. Scott’s willingness to zig when Mr. McConnell zags has confounded Republican leaders. It also has increased speculation about the Florida Republican’s presidential ambitions and has generated an outpouring of adulation from the Trump-inspired base of the party.
“They are very much in favor of Rick Scott getting crosswise with Sen. McConnell because Sen. McConnell does a lot of things that the base does not agree with,” said Peter Feaman, national committeeman of the Republican Party of Florida. “So getting crosswise with Sen. McConnell only helps Sen. Scott with his Republican base in Florida.”
Indeed, the deep level of respect that the grizzled, battle-tested Republican leader from Kentucky maintains inside the halls of Congress contrasts sharply with the deep disdain from former President Donald Trump, Mr. Trump’s die-hard supporters and his political acolytes in races across the country.
Mr. Scott has a foot in both of those worlds.
The 69-year-old serves alongside Mr. McConnell as chief of the Senate Republican campaign arm, which is responsible for defending incumbents. He also keeps an open line of communication with Mr. Trump, who has labeled Mr. McConnell an “Old Crow” and sought to chop down incumbents he deems disloyal.
“He has tried to stay in the national limelight with some success by taking on and becoming the head of the Republican senatorial committee to try to help Republicans take back control of the Senate,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “That not only increases your visibility but has the potential to make a long list of friends across the country and build a donor network.”
The prevailing sense is that Mr. Scott is eyeing a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. That would put him on a crash course with a pair of other Floridians: Mr. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are considered the early front-runners.
“Right now, he doesn’t have a great chance of winning the Republican nomination, but we are still very early,” Mr. Jewett said. “Maybe Trump and DeSantis end up tearing each other apart and then there is room for that third candidate after all.”
Before entering politics, Mr. Scott served as CEO of a hospital company charged with defrauding Medicare and Medicaid.
Mr. Scott shocked the political world in 2010 when he rose out of relative obscurity to become Florida’s governor after dumping $73 million of his own money into the race.
The wealthiest member of Congress, he spent $63 million of his personal fortune on his successful 2018 Senate bid. Over time, his standoffish style has become more relaxed.
Brett Doster, a Florida-based Republican Party strategist, said he predicts Mr. Scott will test his winning streak in a bid for president but does not think the “friction with McConnell is calculated.”
“Scott is a conservative and a former governor and CEO,” Mr. Doster said. “As such, Scott will have moments of lost patience with the Senate’s constant compromise. [It] may irritate McConnell, but that pays dividends as McConnell is the very face of the ‘sold-out’ establishment.”
On Thursday, Mr. Scott said the bipartisan gun bill is far different from the legislation he signed as Florida governor in 2018 after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
“One was the product of a collaborative, well-defined and transparent process,” Mr. Scott said. “The other was the result of secret backroom dealings that did not include input from the majority of Republican members, committee hearings, nor opportunities for amendments, giving members barely an hour to read the bill before we were asked to vote on it.
“I was hopeful the Senate would follow an open and thorough process like we did in Florida,” he said. “That is unfortunately not the case with the current bill and why I will vote no.”
Mr. McConnell made it clear that he views the proposal as a boon for the Republican brand heading into the fall elections.
“The American people want their constitutional rights protected and their kids to be safe in school. They want both those things at once. And that is just what the bill before the Senate will help accomplish,” Mr. McConnell said.
Mr. McConnell gave the green light to bipartisan negotiations that produced gun legislation and joined 14 other Senate Republicans to advance the bill over the 60-vote filibuster hurdle that killed attempts at gun control legislation for decades.
It is not the first time the two Republican power brokers have not seen eye to eye.
Mr. Scott found himself at loggerheads with Mr. McConnell over his “plan to rescue America,” which included income taxes for everyone and a five-year end to all legislation.
More interested in letting Democrats hang themselves, Mr. McConnell said Republicans would not tout an agenda “that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.”
Mr. Scott has revised his proposal but insists the party must offer a clear vision.
“There are people who don’t believe we ought to run on a plan. I do,” Mr. Scott said this week at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with Washington reporters. “I’m a business guy. I believe we ought to have a plan, and I believe we ought to fight over what’s in it.”
Mr. Scott passed up a chance to outright endorse Mr. McConnell as majority leader if Republicans flip the Senate in elections this fall. He said he doesn’t want to deal with a “hypothetical.”
Curt Anderson, a longtime Scott adviser, downplayed the 2024 chatter. He said the senator is 99% focused on the midterm elections.
“The other 1% is focused on making sure that after we win, the Republican Party actually has a plan for what we will do,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
Mr. Scott breaks the conventional political mold, he said.
“He doesn’t need affirmation from politicians,” Mr. Anderson said. “He doesn’t play by the traditional political rules. He does what he thinks is right and lets the chips fall where they may. … When you think about him, don’t think about what a traditional politician would do.”