Tea party-backed Scott claims win in Fla. gov. race

FORT LAUDERDALE – Multimillionaire businessman Rick Scott, a tea party-backed Republican who promised to shake the political establishment and create hundreds of thousands of jobs, won a razor-thin victory Wednesday to become Florida’s next governor.

A jubilant Scott declared “Florida is open for business” to a raucous crowd of supporters that had stayed up late into the night waiting for the win over Democrat Alex Sink to be made official. In his victory speech, Scott vowed to end “politics as usual” in Tallahassee, but also to work to bridge the gap between Sink’s followers and his own.

“There were plenty of pundits, politicians and insiders who said this victory was impossible,” Scott said, flanked by his family and his running mate, Jennifer Carroll. “But the people of Florida knew exactly what they wanted. They sent a message loud and clear. They said: ‘Let’s get to work.'”

Scott rode an improbable wave of support to victory, jumping into the race unexpectedly in April and securing a strong enough following with his disciplined message of job creation that he upended the Republican establishment and its favored primary candidate, Attorney General Bill McCollum. Throughout the primary and in his contest with Sink, he also battled relentless questions of his own ethics, spurred by massive fraud perpetrated at the company he founded but from which he was ultimately ousted.

Scott posted a small lead in the race from the first trickle of returns Tuesday and held it throughout the night. Ballots were still being counted Wednesday but, in the end, Sink concluded “there is no path to victory for us.” Scott led by 1 percent, or about 53,000 votes, with 99 percent of the ballots counted.

“We fought very, very hard,” Sink said. “We just fell a little bit short.”

For a while in the early hours of Wednesday, it appeared Florida might be experiencing deja vu from its presidential election 10 years earlier. Palm Beach County, the epicenter of the Bush-Gore election fight, was slow to report returns.

This time, there were no punch-card ballots or hanging chads thanks to voting reforms since 2000. Instead, election officials were sifting through a few thousand paper ballots rejected by scanning machines because they came in with coffee stains, cigarette burns and eraser marks. And unless Sink could cut his lead in half to 0.5 percent, state law barred a recount.

Scott, 57, garnered little attention when he announced his candidacy, but the lengths he was willing to go to spend his fortune soon blanketed the state in ads and became a contender. He spent about $73 million of his own money on the race.

With an oratory of simple, unsoaring words Scott repeatedly linked Sink to President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He branded the former bank president as a liberal and a “Tallahassee insider” even though she’s in her first term of office, seeking to capitalize on frustration with incumbents. He promised to bring change to state government even as Republicans have controlled the governor’s mansion for 12 years, including eight years under the very conservative Jeb Bush, and both houses of the Legislature.

Scott’s victory came despite relentless attacks from Sink over massive fraud at Columbia/HCA, the hospital chain he founded and which ultimately paid a record $1.7 billion fine for defrauding Medicare and other government programs. He convinced voters to accept his argument that he was guilty of nothing more than a failure to hire more auditors.

“He can make a change,” said a jubilant Toney Sleiman, a 60-year-old real estate developer from Jacksonville who attended Scott’s victory party wearing a black T-shirt declaring the Republican the new governor and the phrase “I Told You So!” plastered across it.

The candidate’s story of growing up in meager surroundings, for a time living in public housing, and scraping his way to riches, connected with voters desperate for a happy ending in an economy that’s brought great hardship.

In exit polls, seven of 10 Florida voters described the economic downturn as the biggest issue facing the nation. Scott did better among men, while Sink had a clear edge among women. Nine out of 10 blacks voted for Sink, but Hispanics were split about evenly between the two. Whites favored Scott by a solid margin.

Four in 10 Florida voters said they supported the tea party movement, and those voters overwhelmingly backed Scott. He garnered more than half of independents’ votes.

The survey of Florida voters was conducted for AP by Edison Research. It includes results from interviews with 2,536 voters from a random sample of 45 precincts statewide Tuesday; 700 who voted early or absentee were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Oct. 22 through Oct. 31. Results for the full sample were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.

Sink, 62, is the state’s chief financial officer, and worked for 26 years in banking. She lost despite the endorsement of the state’s law enforcement union and every daily newspaper.

To the very end, polls remained incredibly close and the race’s conclusion impossible to predict. But Scott remained optimistic, repeatedly saying in recent days he was expecting to win big. Supporters along the campaign trail even started calling him governor.

Scott, who will be sworn in Jan. 4, will replace Gov. Charlie Crist, who eschewed a second term to run for U.S. Senate as an independent. Crist lost that race Tuesday to Republican Marco Rubio, who also had tea party backing.