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‘It Was Pure Retaliation’: The Feud That Will Define the Senate GOP

Rick Scott hasn’t given up his quest to vanquish Mitch McConnell and restore his own battered image inside the Republican conference.

In late November of 2022, Sen. Rick Scott received a text from an aide to Mitch McConnell. In the new Congress, the terse message informed him, Scott would no longer be a member of the powerful Commerce Committee.

It had been a bad month for Senate Republicans, many of whom blamed their poor performance and Democratic gains on Scott, who was chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. McConnell and his top aides questioned Scott’s fundraising prowess, his candidate recruitment, his policy agenda and even his decision to take a vacation in the middle of the campaign.

Scott fought back by brazenly challenging McConnell for Republican leader, a suicide mission encouraged by Donald Trump. The demotion from Commerce came shortly after his defeat in the secret ballot election.

The Scott-McConnell feud has never really subsided. Scott has led a band of senators on the right who have challenged McConnell on top priorities, such as aid to Ukraine, and voted against crucial legislation that McConnell supported, such as a debt limit extension and continuing resolutions to keep the government funded.

This week, Scott announced he will once again run for McConnell’s job.

Things will be a little different this time. McConnell is stepping down as leader after the election, and Scott will face John Thune (R-S.D.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the only other declared candidates in the race.

But Scott’s message is still about McConnell. In a letter to fellow Republican senators on Wednesday, he detailed a list of process grievances he says Republicans have been burdened with under McConnell’s long reign, complaining about a lack of transparency, “too many backroom deals cut in secret,” and “caving in to Democrat demands.”

I visited Scott the morning after his surprise entry into the leadership race to interview him for the Deep Dive podcast. We talked about why he’s running, what Donald Trump told him about his decision, his policy agenda on foreign aid, abortion, entitlements and Israel if he’s elected leader and who should be Trump’s running mate.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity by Deep Dive producer Kara Tabor and senior producer Alex Keeney. You can listen to the full Playbook Deep Dive podcast interview here:

Let’s talk about Donald Trump. He encouraged you to run for leader in 2022. What did he say to you this time about running?

I’ve known him since before I was governor. He’s a friend. I called him to tell him I was going to do it. Yesterday, I talked to him. He said he’s excited that I’m getting in.

Did you ask him to endorse you?

I’m going to try to, of course, get him to support me like I’m going to try to get everybody.

No, but, you’ve got a little bit of an in. I mean, I know you know Trump, but you also know Susie Wiles. So do you think you have the inside track here because of that?

I think President Trump makes his own choices. Susie’s doing a really good job. I think Trump’s running a really good race, and he’s going to have a big win.

We’ve got to talk about your chairmanship of the NRSC. It wasn’t considered a success. Republicans did not take back the Senate. The House Republicans did take back the House. You said in your Wednesday letter announcing your candidacy that “any success I had in business was based on acknowledging challenges and mistakes.” And you also talked about “holding ourselves accountable for mistakes and failure.” So, did you fail in 2022?

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Well, we didn’t get a majority. I tried. We worked hard to get a majority. We didn’t get a majority. So you always have to say to yourself, “Okay, so what else could you always do?”

We needed to have an overall plan. We didn’t. OK. But if you’re the NRSC chair, you don’t get to do that. That was driven by the leader of the Senate who made the decision not to have a plan. He was very clear.

You had one. You had the 12-point plan. He said no.

Well, I had my plan. I never asked anybody else to accept my plan. But I believe that we ought to run on something.

But that wasn’t your plan. You weren’t running for reelection. That wasn’t your personal plan.

Yes it was. It was my plan. Hundred percent of my plan. I never asked one other person to ever adopt it. Nobody. I said, “This is what I believe in.”

I want to go through some of the criticisms. One was that you declined to interfere in open GOP Senate primaries, which led to some very weak candidates. The classic example is Herschel Walker in Georgia. Is that a fair criticism?

I don’t believe that Washington, D.C. should be picking candidates. I don’t believe it. In 2010, when I ran, I ran against an individual that had every endorsement in the country. Bill McCollum. And I ran against him. So in the beginning, the only Republicans that talked to me were the ones that told me to get out. And I believe that I won because I represented what Florida voters cared about at the time.

So the GOP primary voters should make that decision?

Absolutely.

Any of the other criticisms fair from that era? There were criticisms that you didn’t raise enough money, that you set expectations too high, that you didn’t recruit well.

I think if you go back and look at the numbers — I think we did pretty well in fundraising. But, look, would you always like to raise more money? Yeah. We like to raise more money.

Is there anything that’s sort of a lesson learned from that experience?

I think the thing that surprised us was the amount of money Planned Parenthood and their affiliates spent.

Listen to this episode of Playbook Deep Dive on AppleSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

What do you bring to the table that John Cornyn and John Thune don’t in this leadership race?

If you look at my background, I’m a turnaround guy. I turned around companies, and then I turned around Florida. I ran when Florida was in trouble financially, and people were leaving the state, actually.

I think if you look at almost $35 trillion of debt, the border, the inflation crisis, all these things are coming to a head. And so what I bring to the table is, I think there has to be — not minor change — there has to be a sea change here. If people don’t think we need to change, then they shouldn’t pick me. Pick somebody else.

You wouldn’t be running if you didn’t think that you were better able to lead the GOP conference than John and John. Your letter suggested this, so I’m going to ask it directly: Are they just McConnell clones, the two of them?

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I look at it as a race about: How do you want to be governed?

When I talk to people, people are frustrated that we don’t have bills that go through committee. We don’t have amendment votes. People feel sort of disenfranchised. They don’t have any input on a lot of this stuff and were surprised.

I’ve listened to what people said since I’ve been up here. So what I hope is what happens here is we have a real, legitimate conversation about how Republican senators ought to be governed.

Right. But so much of your case and what you just laid out there is a rebuke of the current leadership of McConnell. And I can’t help but throw this quote out. When Trump endorsed you for reelection this year, for senator, he said you’re “the only person who has been willing to take on the very destructive super RINO, Mitch McConnell.” Is that true?

Well, I’m the only person that was willing to run against Leader McConnell. I think we have to have dramatic change. We shouldn’t be doing omnibus bills. We should be having appropriation bills. We should have a budget. We should have legitimate fights over conservative ideas.

Give me a chance to sell something. But when I don’t even have an opportunity to have an amendment vote, when I don’t have to have any input on a bill, that’s not the way the Senate was organized. The Senate is supposed to be organized where we all get to represent our states. And so when I ran against McConnell, I was clear that these are the things I think we need to change. Our country is in deep trouble. If you look at any poll, Americans are saying they think we have real problems. And so I think our problems, some of them are caused because we haven’t done what our Constitution set up: Represent your state.

You got 10 votes when you ran against McConnell at the end of 2022. What makes you think that you can do better this time around against Thune and Cornyn?

Well, I’ve listened, and when I talk to people, people are frustrated. And they’re frustrated that they don’t have any input in how things are going here. On top of that, I think Trump’s going to win. I think it’s important to have somebody who is going to help Trump get his agenda passed.

After you challenged McConnell, you have said that he retaliated against you in a couple of ways. What did he do?

I got kicked off committee. I got kicked off Commerce. I’ve never done a real study of this, but I think I’d probably run the biggest company of anybody that’s ever served in the Senate before. I mean, I had 285,000 employees. I’ve done business all my life. Mike Lee nominated me and I got kicked off of Commerce. I mean, that’s clearly retaliation, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

When that happens, is it communicated in that way or is it sort of denied at the official level?

I got a text.

From?

I got a text from somebody who told me I was kicked off.

A McConnell person. Not him. Not the leader himself? How soon after the vote?

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I can’t remember. I mean, probably a week.

How did you respond?

There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s pretty frustrating. Mike Lee and I probably did the vast majority of the Republican amendments on the time I’d been on the committee. We were active committee members. Look, it was just pure retaliation.

I heard you say on Charlie Kirk’s podcast the other day that another stick that was used was to tell people not to give money to some of the rebels’ campaigns. Did that happen to you?

Oh, it happened to me, yeah.

For this cycle?

Oh, yeah.

Let’s talk about some of your policies. In your letter to Republican senators, you have eight promises. Number six says “I will lead the conference in developing a positive, aspirational agenda that outlines our legislative goals and what Senate Republicans stand for.” Have you given thought to those specifics yet?

So I think the way that should happen is and by the way, we’re supposed to have a legislative agenda in our bylaws, which we’ve never had since I’ve been up here.

The Republican Policy Committee’s supposed to come up with that?

It was supposed to come up and the conference is supposed to have a new legislative agenda.

Is that Joni Ernst’s job?

It’s all of our jobs. So the way it should happen is we ought to be meeting. My experience in business is that you first decide what you would like to accomplish if you’re starting a company. But if you take over a company, which I’ve taken over companies also, you get your management team together and you say “OK, so what would we like to accomplish and how are we going to accomplish that?” And the same thing should be happening here.

We should be sitting down as a conference and saying, “OK, so these are the problems of the country, right?” The border is a problem, so how are we going to solve that? Inflation’s a problem, so how are we going to solve it? Our military is behind in recruiting and readiness. How are we going to solve that? We have a president that doesn’t support Israel and supports Gaza, which the money goes to Hamas. How are we going to deal with these things, even if we don’t have the White House? It takes 60 votes in the Senate to pass things, so we have a voice. So how are we going to use our voice and act in concert to get more stuff done? The way you do that is you sit down with everybody. I’ve been up here for five years. That’s not what happens.

You mentioned Israel and Gaza. You said recently that, “We have American hostages in Gaza. We have Rangers, we have special forces, we have Navy SEALs. I’ve never heard of one attempt to get any of the American hostages out of Gaza. Not one.” Should we use the U.S. military to rescue those hostages in Gaza?

We should look into it. But I’ve never heard one thing. I mean, I’m on Armed Services. I’ve never heard the military say that they’ve even come up with a plan to try to get American hostages out. If I’m a hostage, I sure as hell hope my country would try to get me out, wherever I am. And I’ve not heard that. Actually, since Biden’s been in office, I’ve not heard that anywhere in the country unless you’re a basketball player.

What are the pros and cons of sending the U.S. military into Gaza to try and rescue American hostages?

Well, that’s what the military should be doing. The president should say, “Hey look, maybe you can’t do it. Maybe it’s not possible.” But I’d sure as hell hope that if I was an American and I was stuck in Gaza that the American president is asking his or her military, “Can you get me out? Could they get me out?” I mean, that’s what I’d hope. I don’t hear it at all.

From either party.

It’s up to the president. The president’s the civilian commander in chief. It’s 100 percent up to him, but I’ve not heard any plans. And I sit on Armed Services. I go to all classified briefings.

On abortion, you’ve said that you support Florida’s recently passed abortion law. As Republican leader, would you work to pass similar legislation?

No. I think it all would be done at the state. I think the Supreme Court made the decision that it ought to be done at the state level.

Really?

Yeah, absolutely. Everything should be done at the state level. I’m pro-life and when I was governor, I signed every pro-life bill. If you look at where a state is, first off I think we need to be very aggressive to make sure people have access to contraception. We need to make sure IVF is legal, which it is in all 50 states. I have a family member going through IVF right now. If you look at the consensus in Florida today, it’s probably 15 weeks. So if I was writing a bill, you’d say it would be 15 weeks, with the exceptions of life for the mother or rape and incest. But then I explain to people the Democrats are extreme. They want you to pay for abortion. They want to crush a baby’s skull at nine months, and they want to leave a healthy baby born alive in the corner to die. I mean, that’s extreme.

So would you work to pass a 15-week ban as Leader Scott with President Trump?

No. It should be done at the state level.

Isn’t that going to be very disappointing to a lot of pro-life activists that have supported you in Florida?

I think it ought to be done. The Supreme Court made the decision. I think it ought to be done at the state level. I think our primary goal — the federal government — is to defend our freedoms and that’s have a military and that it’s ready to defend the freedoms of this country. And that’s the primary goal of the federal government.

On Ukraine, Mitch McConnell has recently been sharply critical of Republicans who want to pull back from defending Ukraine. And in recent days, he has criticized conservatives who he says admire [Hungarian President] Viktor Orban. Do you think he has a fair argument here, or do you disagree with him on those two things?

First off, I want Ukraine to win. I want Russia to lose. But that doesn’t mean I want to pay for the politicians’ salaries in Ukraine. That doesn’t mean I want to give Biden unlimited humanitarian money that he could possibly give to Gazans, which goes to Hamas. Doesn’t mean I want to pay for the pension plans of the politicians in Ukraine.

Here’s what’s frustrating about the supplemental that Schumer and Biden put together. I didn’t even get an amendment vote. I had a simple amendment. I don’t think any money ought to go to Hamas. That’s not controversial. It would have passed overwhelmingly. It passed, I think 99 to 1 or something before. And then Schumer stripped it out on — I think — a reconciliation bill. But I didn’t even get a vote. That’s not the way this place ought to work. If I can’t sell my ideas, that’s my problem. Not getting the opportunity to sell my ideas and having bills that never went through committee, that means that your vote, your thoughts don’t even matter.

But at the end of the day, you voted against the supplemental and you helped lead the Senate Republicans who voted against it. Are you saying that there’s a version of aid to Ukraine that you would have supported?

Absolutely. I’ve supported military aid to Ukraine, but I think there ought to be accountability. That bill included $3 billion to allow Biden to bring in more unvetted illegals into this country. That’s wrong. And by the way, we found out that is what I thought would happen. I did an op-ed on it. Here’s what’s going to happen: He’s going to give money to Gazans, which goes to Hamas. Hamas still controls Gaza. And then he’s going to withhold aid to Israel. He did.

McConnell criticizing Republicans who seem to be interested and supportive of Viktor Orban. What do you make of that?

I haven’t seen it.

In 2022, you very famously put together a 12-point policy plan that was the subject of a lot of turbulence among Republicans. One of the big issues was your Social Security and Medicare reform proposals in that plan.

There’s not one reform proposal in there.

Or what people interpreted as —

No, they lied about it. No, it’s called a lie. What I said is: “Let’s be realistic.” Let’s be truthful about what happened here. I think it’s important that we preserve Medicare and Social Security.

This idea that we can run trillion, $2 trillion deficits and put no effort in trying to preserve those programs is wrong. If you look at what I said in there, I said that we ought to tell the American public what we’re going to do. That’s not controversial.

And a lot of Republicans said, “No, we don’t want to tell them, because that’s immediately going to be interpreted as cuts.”

No, [Democrats] lied and said, [Republicans] all wanted to cut it.” That was a complete lie. Actually, I have a bill that would preserve it.

Can you reform those two programs without any cuts in benefits?

If we want to preserve any program, why don’t we start by getting everybody back to work? We have 100 million people in this country of working age that are not working. Think about the revenue base we would have if all those people got back to work. Think of the revenue base we have if we actually build a better economy. We’re killing our economy by causing energy prices to go up. When energy prices go up, the competitiveness of America goes down. That means we have less opportunity.

I built companies based on doing a better job of growing revenues, which gives you the opportunity to control your costs. I grew Florida by working with the private sector to add 1.7 million jobs. Guess what happens to revenues? They go up. Then you can say, “Okay, now how should I allocate those dollars to you?” Absolutely we can preserve the benefits of Social Security and Medicare.

So should Republicans lay out a specific policy agenda on Medicare and Social Security this year, including the president?

My experience in things is what we ought to do first. Let’s talk about how do we rebuild the American economy and how do we get the American economy going? Because the revenues in this country will skyrocket.

I hear you, but you’re willing to say, get those people back to work. That will increase revenues. But it doesn’t sound like you think Republicans or even yourself should lay out a specific plan on those two programs.

I think what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to get people back to work. And then we said, how do we make sure that Social Security, Medicare, the benefits are never cut.

You talk to Trump a lot. The next big decision he has to make is on a running mate. Do you have anyone you’d like to see him pick?

I think a good Republican. He’ll make a good pick. He made a good pick in ‘16. I think Mike Pence was a good pick. He picked somebody that helped him win the election.

Marco Rubio is considered to be on a shortlist. Do you think he would make a good vice president?

Yeah. Marco’s a good guy. Marco’s a hard worker.

Given your background as an executive, when did you decide that you wanted a career in the Senate — this decision as running for leader puts you on a different path — rather than running for president one day?

First off, you’re term-limited, which I believe in.

And you want to term limit the leader for six years, right?

Yeah, I think the leader ought to be term limited. So I believe in term limits. So it was the opportunity at the time and I believe that we’ve got to do everything we can to fix the federal government. So that’s why I ran for the Senate.

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