ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Heading into a crucial election year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Saturday that the state's Republicans will win big and keep their lock on state government and maintain their majority among Florida's members in Congress.
Scott's remarks at the annual gathering of the Republican Party of Florida were his first major campaign speech during a year in which he will be the main target for the state's Democrats.
Scott and other top Republicans gearing up for this year's elections sounded confident as they repeatedly cited the state's improving economy and jobs picture as a key reason why they expect to win in November.
"We have every right to win every election because we are doing the right thing," Scott told roughly 200 party activists and party officials.
Republicans have controlled the Florida Legislature and governor's mansion for much of the last two decades. But Democrats consider Scott vulnerable, since he has had lackluster poll numbers during his entire three years in office. Several Republicans emphasized the importance of the 2014 election saying that it will help the GOP during the next presidential election. President Barack Obama won Florida in both 2008 and 2012, while President George W. Bush won the state four years earlier.
"The road to the White House in 2016 runs right through Tallahassee," said Peter Feaman, Florida's national committeeman.
Even though there are other Democrats in the race, Florida Republicans consider former Gov. Charlie Crist the likely candidate to challenge Scott in the fall. Crist formally jumped into the race last November and has raised more than $4 million for his campaign effort in just two months.
Crist has wasted little time in criticizing Scott as a "terrible governor" and faulting him everything from pushing for budget cuts to education in first year to rejecting billions in federal aid for high speed rail.
Scott did not mention Crist directly during his remarks, but that didn't stop other Republicans from branding Crist as a political opportunist who changed his political philosophy and parties. Crist was elected while he was Republican, ran as an independent in the U.S. Senate race he lost to Marco Rubio, and became a Democrat in 2012.
"Charlie Crist will say and do anything to get elected and we can't let our fellow citizens in Florida not remember that," said Sharon Day, co-chair of the Republican National Committee.
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry told party members that they have to continue to remind Floridians that that state's unemployment rate has dropped since Scott took office. Curry insisted that Scott deserves the credit for improvement in the state's economy and that the GOP should push back if the media or Democrats say otherwise.
"The Democratic establishment will go out of its way to poke holes in our triumphs," Curry said.
Florida's unemployment rate in December was 6.4 percent. That's the lowest it has been since July 2008, but state economists say one of the big reasons for the decline is people are leaving the labor force or had delayed their job search. The state Office of Economic and Demographic Research said in a report last month that Florida's real unemployment rate would be 8.3 percent if the amount of people in the labor force had held steady since December 2011.
Republicans expect to have a significant cash advantage over Crist and the Democrats during the next 10 months that should allow them to spend millions on television advertising to tout Scott's handling of the economy.
But Curry and others made it clear that they also plan to use Crist's support of Obama and the president's health care overhaul in the campaign. Scott, who has been a harsh critic of the overhaul in the past and used it during his first campaign, lashed into it again on Saturday, and said "we don't need the federal government telling us what to do every day."
"We are going to absolutely point out where Charlie Crist failed and his connection and his tie to this atrocious act," Curry said.