Rick Scott wants to rebrand the Republican Party.
The Florida Governor sits in the middle of a long table of about two-dozen reporters at a Capitol Hill steakhouse, sporting a red and gold pin in the shape of the state he governs, a state so large that the pin registers as outsized for his lapel. Scott, who is considering a run for the Senate next year, is in town to announce that he will chair a super PAC called New Republican.
“We’ve got to get out of this attacking each other and we’ve got to get into this idea that we can go reinvent the party, and we reinvent how we think about it, and get a lot more things done and get a lot more people to help us,” he explained.
It’s an odd concern for this particular moment, when the GOP is fresh off winning control of every lever of power in Washington: the House, the Senate, and the presidency. The man now occupying the White House is something of a kindred spirit to Scott — both wealthy businessmen whose bids for public office were initially rejected by the party of which they are now both leading figures — and someone Scott counts as a friend of about 20 years. Scott endorsed Donald Trump after he won the Florida primary in March.
With Trump blowing up the old system, Scott said, this is the perfect time to make changes. But New Republican’s plan seems to harken back to a time before Trump and the Republican victories he ushered in in November. Specifically, back to a moment when the GOP was stinging from defeat in the 2012 presidential election, a loss so painful that the Republican National Committee was conducting an “autopsy” on a party that seemed to no longer have a pulse. The result was a document that called for a renewed focus on appealing to Hispanic voters, women, and young people, a document that caught fire and slowly burned to ash over the course of the 2016 election.
New Republican would like to bring some of the ideas in the autopsy back. The group’s goals, as Scott states them, are to win Hispanic and young voters and to promote deregulation.
"We should win the Hispanic vote. Hands down,” Scott said declared Wednesday night. Alex Smith, the National Chairman of College Republicans sitting toward the end of the table spoke about how to recalibrate the Republican message for young people for whom, Smith said she learned in focus groups, the concept of “big government” holds no meaning.
GOP consultant Alex Castellanos, who founded the New Republican super PAC several years ago, and will serve as its senior advisor, was more pointed.
“What if we had a Republican Party that people actually wanted to join?”
“What if we had a Republican Party that people actually wanted to join?” he posited. The name and concept of the group, which in Castellanos’ explanation also includes an effort to find a message that can unite an increasingly fractured GOP, came from an article he wrote in National Review in January 2010.
A lot has happened in the more than seven years since that article was written, but some of what Castellanos wrote feels very present. “A New Republican is not an insider. He’s an outsider,” Castellanos wrote at the time. “Where populism and conservative principles meet, you will find a New Republican and the spirit of a new age,” he writes later. Sound familiar?
As populist political outsider, Trump very nearly fits the bill. But how much he fits the last part of the description — whether he is himself a conservative — remains a question that many in the Republican Party are still struggling with. It’s a question to which neither Scott nor Castellanos is inclined to give a particularly direct answer.
“My experience with him is he is somebody who has beliefs about where this country ought to go,” said Scott, adding: “I don’t really think about labels.”
“I think a fair way to answer that question, being sensitive to the environment, is to say he’s an outsider — from both parties,” said Castellanos. “And if we as Republicans can’t present our principles and policies in a way that inspires and attracts the support of the American people, then Democrats are going to be very successful in getting [Trump’s] attention.”
Part of the audience for this rebranding, it seems, is the president himself.
The super PAC will run digital and television ads to both support Trump, and produce opinion pieces and opinion research to illustrate that what they are suggesting works. Scott’s former chief of staff and campaign manager, Melissa Stone, will be the group’s executive director; Taylor Teepell, who works in Scott’s administration and previously worked for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, will be its finance director.
The messaging effort could prove a way to segue to Scott’s next act: a Senate bid to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018. It’s something Scott is openly considering, and something Trump, to whom he speaks “a lot,” has been encouraging him to do. How often in their conversations does Trump raise the issue of the Senate race?
“Not every time,” Scott replied.
But Scott, whose personal wealth could give him a leg up on fundraising for a bid — though he said it was too early to talk about whether he would self-fund a Senate race he has not yet decided to enter — says he’s in no hurry. “There’s no rush to make a decision,” he said. Besides, he said, “I think people are tired of long races.”
Stylistically, Scott can seem an odd person to deliver the message of this rebrand. The vision of New Republican, presented on artistically designed handouts that Castellanos jokingly refers to as “propaganda,” is lofty and theatrical. “Building the GOP’s next generation,” is the tagline. “There's a better Republican Party out there than the one we have now,” Castellanos says during his presentation, and that better vision, he argues, could heal the “schism” that continues to plague the GOP.
But Scott’s manner over dinner eschews any theatricality. He speaks softly and calmly, with few rhetorical flourishes. When he is not speaking, he sits slightly hunched in his chair, a slight smile on his face.
Answering questions, Scott is evidently at his most comfortable talking about the least sexy part of the group’s goals: deregulation. “I believe we ought to sell that,” he said.
“I’m not trying to start a new party,” he explains. “I’m just saying how should we sell ourselves.”
But to some extent the GOP just rebranded itself with Trump’s election, something the party — and its more prominent members especially — continue to try to grapple with.
“Do you consider Trump a net plus or a net minus for the Republican brand?” a reporter asked.
“We won,” Scott said softly.