The resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll in an Internet gambling scandal is the latest political blow to Gov. Rick Scott and could fuel interest in a Republican primary challenge to his 2014 re-election campaign.
Carroll’s resignation follows other recent political problems for Scott: criticism by conservatives for reversing his position on Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama’s health care reform plan, and a rebuke from the Florida Legislature, where committees voted this week not to accept the expansion.
“It’s been a really tough week for the governor,” said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican.
“If this doesn’t get Adam Putnam into the race, nothing will,” he said, referring to the state agriculture commissioner, the top subject of speculation about a primary opponent for Scott.
But not all experts are so sure the Carroll incident will still matter by the time campaign season begins in 2014.
“Scott’s got a lot bigger problems than this,” said University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett, who’s politically neutral.
“Lieutenant governors aren’t usually much in the voters’ minds when they make a decision. We’re a long way from the election, and assuming that the replacement he chooses is competent, it will probably blow over.”
The effects could depend on how involved Carroll was in dealings with Allied Veterans of the World, the alleged Internet cafe gambling, money-laundering and racketeering ring, said veteran Florida GOP political strategist David Johnson.
That wasn’t clear Tuesday.
A news conference by law enforcement agencies didn’t indicate that Carroll or her public relations company, which worked for Allied Veterans, was a target of the probe, and she denied that it was in a written statement.
Putnam, along with other possible primary challengers, has refused to fuel speculation about a challenge, saying he expects Scott to be re-nominated and re-elected.
Putnam wouldn’t talk to reporters Tuesday, but he wasn’t completely silent. As the news broke, he quickly issued a statement calling for a statewide ban on Internet sweepstakes cafes, a stance not calculated to play down the scandal.
State Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, both issued similar statements, saying legislative committees will quickly consider bans.
Democrats hope to keep the story alive.
“Floridians expected an administration focused on solving the problems facing Florida’s families but instead got a scandal-plagued governor and a revolving staff door,” said state Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant in a written statement. “Rick Scott and his administration have made a mockery of the Governor’s Office.”
The state Republican Party, meanwhile, stood by Carroll and aimed at damage control.
She “has been a great leader for our party and our state,” said a statement from Chairman Lenny Curry. “She made the right decision to protect both her family and the work she has done to move our state forward.”
Hints of corruption aren’t what Scott needs. His poll standing seemed last year to be inching up, but more recent polls don’t show it.
A January Public Policy Polling survey gave him 33 percent approval and 57 percent disapproval ratings; Quinnipiac University’s polls showed him declining from 41 percent approval in May to 36 percent in December.
He could face questions about his vetting of Carroll, Paulson noted. She’s no stranger to controversy, including questions related to Allied Veterans.
As a state House member, while her firm was getting paid by Allied Veterans, Carroll filed a bill that would have benefitted such companies. After news reports, she withdrew it, saying an aide had filed the bill without permission.
As lieutenant governor, her travel costs have attracted attention, along with dissension in her office staff.
Previously, she had raised eyebrows with inaccurate financial disclosures, and the Jacksonville Times Union reported on questions about her firm’s eligibility for a minority business grant program.
Carroll was one of three or four potential running mates interviewed for former Gov. Charlie Crist’s 2006 campaign, but neither Crist nor his then-campaign manager, George LeMieux, would say Wednesday why she wasn’t selected.
“We promised them confidentiality,” LeMieux said.
Crist, widely expected to run against Scott, wouldn’t comment on the news about Carroll.
There were good reasons for her political rise, said Jewett.
“Politically speaking, she was everything Republicans wanted: female, black, an immigrant” — Carroll was born in Trinidad — “and also a conservative Republican with a military career,” he said.
Scott said he won’t consider a successor until after the legislative session ends in early May, but speculation began Tuesday, with targets ranging from former U.S. Rep. Allen West to state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. Latvala didn’t rule it out but said he’d have no interest in the job unless it carried significant duties.
The state Constitution gives the lieutenant governor no specific duties; they depend on the governor’s wishes.
“It would be a demotion for someone who’s currently House speaker or Senate president, particularly in the middle of their term,” Latvala said.