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Like the GOP itself, Rick Scott wants to be everything to everyone

Writing for the Atlantic last year, David Brooks outlined the three groups that made up the right’s “intellectual wing,” the faction for which conservatism is predicated not on MAGA hats but on stacks of books (many, it seems, with uncracked spines).

There were the older folks who had been looped into conservative politics for a while but found themselves “radicalized by the current left,” as he put it. There were the political candidates — Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), J.D. Vance — who recognized that steering their rhetoric in a new direction might reap rewards. And then there were young people, for whom the political space is, among other things, refreshingly contrarian.

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Brooks’s categorizations were driven by his attendance at the National Conservatism Conference, a relatively new entrant in the seemingly endless cascade of right-leaning gatherings. He found the rhetoric alarming — but understood why it held appeal.

“America’s rarified NatCon World is just one piece of a larger illiberal populist revolt that is strong and rising,” Brooks wrote. It was, at its heart, the same sort of anti-establishment, anti-elite reaction that powered Donald Trump in the first place.

This has been a tension within the Republican Party for more than a decade. The party has its own establishment, intertwined with the media and the left in a way that much of its base came to find repulsive. The tea party figured out a pitch that appealed to that group and Trump figured out a better one. Now it comes in various flavors — forcing the party and its still extant establishment to learn a variety of new dance steps to join the party. That’s Brooks’s second category, and some are better dancers than others.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) is not the party’s best dancer. But that’s probably because — like the party itself — he’s trying to do more than one dance at the same time.

Scott spoke at the third iteration of the National Conservatism Conference, held this weekend in his home state. He was one of several elected officials to do so, along with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Otherwise, the lineup was a who’s who of a specific right-wing universe: Rod Dreher, Darren Beattie, various Federalist people, Hungary’s Balázs Orbán.

His speech contained the sorts of appeals you might expect, given the venue. The left is burning books, throwing open the borders and prisons and hollowing America out from the inside. But it was DeSantis who thrilled. The Florida governor was “a complete contrast to Rick Scott — and, frankly, Donald Trump,” Dreher wrote on Twitter. “DeSantis is not mostly talk; he gets things done.” The deployment of state power to advance conservative causes is a hobbyhorse of Dreher’s, so a grain of salt is useful. But it seems clear that the crowd was much more of a DeSantis one than a Scott one.

In part, that’s precisely because Scott’s power is limited in a way DeSantis’s isn’t. Sure, Scott can outline a broad agenda for his party and the country, as he did in his speech and as he did earlier this year. But DeSantis can sign new laws and take executive action. He’s also got a communications team that speaks the language of the online right in a way that few other politicians can. (His campaign’s rapid-response director, Christina Pushaw, was also on the speaker list at the conference.)

Scott also has that other constraint: He’s a literal part of the Republican establishment. He’s the head of the party’s Senate campaign arm, a role that he leveraged to unveil a policy platform loaded with old-school GOP positions earlier this year. It’s his job to get members of his party elected in red states and blue ones, tailoring messages that can work in November.

But, then, Scott also is clearly thinking about running for president. He was in Iowa over the weekend, offering his support to a Republican candidate. A House candidate. He doesn’t need to bolster the state’s Republican Senate candidate, Chuck Grassley, who’s got a comfortable lead. And there’s only one reason that politicians make seemingly inexplicable trips to Iowa.

This is why he released that policy platform, of course: He wants to be the party’s thought leader. That Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was irritated by Scott’s articulating policy positions that allowed Democrats to have something to run against — as they did — was seemingly neither here nor there. More problematic for Scott is that he’s got a stable of Senate candidates whose November chances are weaker than the candidates they beat in the primary, like Herschel Walker in Georgia, for example. If the GOP doesn’t retake the Senate, Scott will bear a lot of the blame.

In the meantime, though, he’s trying to turn criticism of those candidates into an anti-establishment talking point.

“[M]any of the very people responsible for losing the Senate last cycle are now trying to stop us from winning the majority this time by trash-talking our Republican candidates,” he wrote for the Washington Examiner earlier this month, clearly referencing McConnell. “It’s an amazing act of cowardice, and ultimately, it’s treasonous to the conservative cause.” Complaints about candidates, he insisted, was just “contempt for the voters who chose them.”

Running against McConnell is a tried and true tactic for appealing to Republican voters. It’s not really clear, though, how it might help get Republicans elected. Particularly in the face of sluggish fundraising under Scott’s watch.

Senate candidates aren’t dependent on Scott for messaging, but his messaging has been almost exclusively centered on stoking enthusiasm from right-wing Republicans. Perhaps this is tactical, aimed at goosing turnout in the way that Donald Trump did in 2016. Or maybe it’s just Scott using his platform to talk to Republican primary voters.

There he was this weekend, after all, trying to woo a right-wing constituency with growing clout but one that does not demonstrably move votes. He’s the establishment, fighting against the establishment. He’s looking to elect senators as he fights with the head of the Republican Senate caucus. He, like the GOP, wants to gain power by fighting the powerful of which he is an element.

But above all, he’s a politician with ambition. His speech at the conference, after all, wasn’t titled “Why We Need to Elect Republicans” or “How the Right Can Unite to Defeat the Left.” It was titled “My Plan to Rescue America.”

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