“There’s that book ‘All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten,’” Joe Scarborough said. “Everything political I needed to learn, I learned in that first campaign. It was a pretty remarkable experience.”
Remarkable is an understatement from someone not known for such. Former Congressman Joe Scarborough is the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” which is considered one of the most politically influential morning shows in the country. In April 2011, Scarborough was named to the prestigious “Time 100” list of the world’s most influential people.
The campaign that he talked about with the Independent News was his first congressional campaign in 1994. The Pensacola Catholic High graduate was only three years out of law school when he took on a Democratic incumbent who was first elected to Congress in 1972—when Scarborough was in fourth grade.
When the incumbent, Earl Hutto, dropped out of the race, he then had to face a well-financed candidate handpicked by the National Republican Party and three better-known candidates just to win the honor of facing another well-known candidate in a district that hadn’t sent a Republican to Congress in over a 100 years.
Republicans simply didn’t win county and district offices in Northwest Florida. How could this inexperienced, young attorney with no money, no big endorsements and no name recognition ever win?
With an army of dedicated volunteers, nearly around-the-clock shows on BLAB TV, sheer perseverance and the will to win, Scarborough accomplished the unthinkable. And by winning the 1994 campaign, he led the way for the Republican Party to dominate panhandle politics for the next two decades.
Taking Up The Challenge
The genesis of Scarborough’s decision was in November 1992. Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president and for the fourth time the Florida Panhandle had voted for the Republican candidate in the presidential race. Hutto won with only 52 percent of the vote against Terry Ketchel.
“It was the first time anybody had ever challenged him closely,” Scarborough said. “I knew that over the next two years with Bill Clinton in office, Hutto was going to have to make a lot of difficult decisions and his votes were not going to line up with the district, so I started thinking about running.”
The idea became more serious in May 1993, when Rep. Hutto voted for Clinton’s budget and tax increase. By September, Scarborough made up his mind to run.
His parents were split on the decision. His mother, Mary Jo, was very supportive. His father, George Sr., not so much. He announced that he was voting for Hutto, but he eventually came around.
In the next month, the Pensacola City Council gave the unknown candidate the perfect platform to showcase his campaign. The city wanted to increase taxes 65 percent. Scarborough helped collect 3,000 signatures to protest the property tax increase. Reluctantly the city council backed down.
“The tax revolt gave me the platform I needed to run,” he said. “It was the year after Bill Clinton had raised taxes, Florida had taxes raised on the state level and then the city wanted to raise taxes, too.”
He sensed it was time in Northwest Florida for a tax revolt. “Basically that is what I ran on,” Scarborough said. “At time, nobody had ever stood up and organized against the city council. They rammed through whatever they wanted to ram through. It was a shock to a lot of people.”
The petition drive defined his campaign message. “It was what a lot of people talked about in the campaign, and what we talked about during the last week of the campaign.”
Scarborough used this in his campaign ads. “We had ads in Fort Walton Beach with a picture of me and the words ‘Tax Killer,’” he said. “People would walk up to me in Fort Walton Beach and say ‘Tax Killerrrrr’ with their thumbs up. I knew that message was going to work.”
In December 1993, Scarborough signed up for Republican campaign manager school. “I told them I wanted to go to campaign manager school, because I knew they wouldn’t let me go to candidate school,” he said. “They would think I had no shot of winning as an unknown 30-year-old.”
His initial campaign strategy was simple: knock on as many doors as possible and run 30-minute call-in shows on Blab TV. In 1994, there weren’t a billion channels on television.
Going On BLAB
“In Pensacola, BLAB was on Channel 4 so everybody had to go past Channel 4 to view other shows,” Scarborough said.
Fred Vigodsky said it was a fluke that BLAB TV had the airtime to sell Scarborough. The station only had four to five hours of live programming on the Cox Cable system. The station didn’t believe in reruns, and everything was live programming,
In 1992, Larry Lewis, the general manager for Cox, told Vigodsky that to meet federal requirements, the system had to have a full-time, 24-hour local community channel. He wanted BLAB to be that channel.
“Lord, Larry, I can barely handle what we have now,” Vigodsky told him. “He said believe me it’s not going to cost you that much more. It was $200-$300 more per week to go 24 hours.”
Nothing happened until a year later, when Lewis called and said BLAB was going 24 hours the next week. Vigodsky protested. He had nothing to put in those time slots, no programming, nothing.
“Well, it’s your channel,” Lewis told him. “We’ll keep it dark, but your bill is going to go up $250 a week.” Two days later, Scarborough walked in his office.
“This kid walks into my office,” Vigodsky said. “He says, ‘I’m an attorney here and am going to run for Congress. I need to buy some airtime because I’ve got a story to tell.’”
The two haggled over the price. Scarborough had little money, and Vigodsky knew he had a ton of unused airtime.
Vigodsky went to his staff and asked, “For this lousy crap, do you think we can get $25 for a half-hour?” The reply was maybe.
Scarborough scooped it up. “I want one Monday morning, one Monday afternoon, one Tuesday morning and took about 12 of those half hours that first week.”
He steadily bought more and more time. By the time that campaign was over, he was doing three to four hours a day.
“What was so smart was the way he did it. He used BLAB the way I always thought everybody ought to use it,” Vigodsky said. “Whenever there was a negative story or anything that was coming out that he could exploit, he called up, said ‘get the cameras ready,’ and he would go on TV and he could talk. Whether it was a story he wanted to tear up or something he wanted to endorse, he was the first person coming out with it. It hadn’t hit the paper, it hadn’t hit Channel 3. And he’s telling them ‘I want you to be the first to know, you’re my people and here’s the inside scoop.’ It didn’t matter what anybody had to say, he knew a way to overcome it or exploit it.”
Vigodsky added, “Joe just really understood it better than I did. I learned more from Joe than he learned from me.”
Hutto Drops Out, Floodgates Open
On Jan. 3, 1994, Scarborough started knocking on doors. “I knocked on about 10,000 doors, getting a lot of yard signs up in the winter and spring when most people had no idea who I was,” he said. “My yard signs were up from Panama City to Perdido Key.”
Then that spring, Rep. Hutto abruptly announced that he was not seeking re-election. Candidates rushed to file for the Republican primary—State Rep. Lois Benson, Escambia County Commissioner Buck Lee, former Reagan aide Jim Paul and Okaloosa County businessman Basil Bethea. Benson was immediately identified as the frontrunner.
Scarborough had built a grassroots campaign with volunteers and had worked hard for six months. He felt good about running against Hutto. The Democrat had a record Scarborough believed he could beat.
“I remember the day he dropped out, he dropped out on my birthday (April 9),” he said. “People were calling to congratulate me. I said this is the worst thing that could happen because the floodgates are going to open. I’m going to be running against everybody that Tallahassee and Washington want to put up.”
He went from being the underdog to Earl Hutto, to being the underdog to five or six other people. The National Republican Party wanted Benson. The GOP had declared the 1994 elections were “The Year of the Woman” and wanted Benson to be the face of the party in Northwest Florida.
“Newt was telling everybody who would listen and the National Republican Committee was telling everybody I was a right-wing crackpot, I couldn’t win the district,” Scarborough said. “If they wanted to win the district, they better support Lois, not me.”
Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) was the House Minority Whip in 1994 and headed the party’s efforts to take control of the House of Representatives. Later that year, he co-authored “Contract with America,” which helped the Republicans dominate the 1994 general election and make him Speaker of the House the following year.
Faced with new competition, Scarborough refused to change his strategy. “I stayed focused on knocking on doors and targeting Republicans that vote in primaries and ignoring everybody else until I got through the primary,” he said.
Attracting An Army
An important addition to his campaign team was Nan Weaver.
“Nan Weaver was one of the first volunteers in the campaign,” Scarborough said. “She ended up running my campaign office and ultimately running the district offices.”
“I was working with Anna, a mom on welfare, trying to help her get her kids back,” Weaver remembered. “I asked her why she didn’t find a job. She said she had had a two-bedroom, one-bath HUD house, got a check every month from the government, and the schools fed her kids. Anna told me, ‘If I go get a job at a hamburger joint, I will lose my benefits.’”
Weaver didn’t have an answer for her.
“Then I watched Joe on BLAB and he was talking about welfare reform,” she said. “He said they either go to school or they get a job. One or the other, otherwise they were off welfare. I thought that’s the answer.”
She also liked what the candidate had to say about smaller government and cutting taxes. At the end of the show, Scarborough gave out a phone number for those interested in joining his campaign. Weaver called and went over to Scarborough’s campaign headquarters at his parents’ home off of Scenic Highway.
“I went over there and it was mass confusion. Post-it notes were everywhere,” she said. “At the end of day, I asked Joe’s mother ‘would you like me to come back tomorrow?’ She said, ‘Oh, yes.’”
Weaver kept going back. “I believed in what he said. I can’t go to Washington, but I can help get somebody there. He was the man I really felt would do the best job for us.”
Another key volunteer was Tom Sullivan. He was upset with Clinton and his policies. He visited the campaign office of another candidate and wasn’t impressed. There was very little happening there.
Like Weaver, he saw Scarborough on BLAB. “This guy was saying things right in line with what I felt and believed,” Sullivan said.
He dropped in at the Scarborough home and saw the same confusion that Weaver saw, but he liked the energy of the headquarters. “It looked like a campaign office,” he said. “I knew this was going to go well.”
Sullivan, too, kept reporting back for work every day.
Scarborough was also able to plug into a base of support that no other candidate had connected with in prior elections—religious conservatives.
“I was raised in the Baptist church,” he said. “My family went to church every time the doors were open, about four days a week, whether it was First Baptist in Pensacola or Meridian, Miss. or Chamblee, Ga. We grew up in the church, I knew the church culture, and I identified with the Evangelicals because I was one and I am one.”
Scarborough never pandered to the congregation when he stood in the pulpit at candidate forums in churches. Some of the other candidates gave their testimonies, not Scarborough.
He described his approach. “I would say, ‘As a Southern Baptist, I know that there is only one man that’s perfect’ and people would go ‘amen, amen.’ ‘That’s the chairman of the building fund.’ Everyone would laugh and go ‘Ok, he knows us. He’s one of us. He has been around enough Baptist building fund drives.’”
He said that Evangelicals did not want sermons from their candidates. “They wanted somebody who was going to understand their concerns, not be condescending like how some people are condescending to people of faith. I think that made all the difference in the world.”
Scarborough added, “People don’t expect you to be perfect. They want to know that you respect and understand them. I did it without being self-righteous, by being who I was and they responded very well to me.”
Asking For Money
While he had dedicated volunteers and a six-month head start on his Republican competitor, Scarborough could not match Lois Benson’s fundraising. With the support of the GOP establishment in Washington, Tallahassee and Pensacola, she quickly raised over $300,000. Scarborough had about $30,000 raised.
Though he hated asking for money, Scarborough drove to Panama City to meet with Charlie Hilton, an attorney, contractor and developer. Considered one of the most influential Republicans in Northwest Florida, Hilton was a prolific fundraiser and a staunch conservative.
“Everybody told me that Charlie Hilton was the man I had to talk to,” Scarborough said. “I went over, told Charlie I needed his support. He said that he was supporting Lois Benson. I said that’s a real shame because I had heard that you’re a conservative.”
The young candidate got up and started to walk out. Hilton said, “Hold on boy, sit down. Let’s talk.”
The two talked and Hilton raised money for him quickly, enough money to run TV ads the last 10 days before the Sept. 8 primary. “It made the difference and put me in the runoff. I went from nobody knows me to everybody knows me the last two weeks.”
Scarborough said, “I knew we were in good shape when people would call up screaming and yelling to tell me that they were not going to vote for me if I didn’t stop running ads on BLAB TV. It was a very good sign.”
Scarborough also attracted the attention of a young staffer working for U.S. Senator Connie Mack (R-Fla.) who was on loan to the Republican Party during the 1994 election season.
“Everybody in Tallahassee wanted to know how Lois Benson was doing in the First District Congressional race,” said David Stafford, who later became Scarborough’s Chief of Staff in Washington, D.C. and was elected Escambia County’s Supervisor of Elections in 2004. “I said that Lois is definitely the frontrunner, but this guy Scarborough, that’s who people keep talking about.”
Making It Through The Primaries
When the votes were tallied on Sept. 8, Scarborough came in second behind Benson, trailing by 332 votes. He lost Escambia and Santa Rosa counties to her, but beat her by 874 votes in Okaloosa County, where BLAB had extended its market that year.
Lois Benson 12,446 31.4%
Joe Scarborough 12,114 30.6%
Buck Lee 6,069 15.3%
Jim Paul 4,682 11.8%
Basil Bethea 4,284 10.8%
If the current election laws were in place, Benson would have been declared the Republican nominee and would have faced Democrat Vinnie Whibbs, Jr. in the general election. In 1994, if no candidate garnered 50 percent, plus one, of the votes cast, there was a runoff four weeks later.
“The day after the vote, Joe had a brilliant strategy,” said Collier Merrill, Benson’s campaign finance chairman. “He stood on the courthouse steps with the other candidates, Jim Paul, Buck Lee and Basil Bethea. And they all announced that they were behind Joe. You knew right then we were done.”
According to Buck Lee, Scarborough had approached all the candidates, other than Benson, and made a pact.
“The polls showed Joe and I were neck and neck going into the primary,” said Lee, who now serves as the executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority. “We made an agreement that whoever came in second, the one who came in third would endorse him.”
Scarborough made Paul his campaign manager for the runoff and general election. Paul would be elected in 2000 Superintendent of Schools for Escambia County with Scarborough’s help.
Merrill’s prediction for the Republican runoff came true. Scarborough crushed Benson, 18,713 to 15,663. Next up was Vinnie Whibbs, Jr., who had handily won the Democratic primary over Jim Barnett, with 55.1 percent of the vote.
Vince Whibbs, Sr. was beloved. He was named the city of Pensacola’s mayor emeritus after serving an unprecedented seven consecutive terms as the city’s mayor. His son, a local attorney, would have tremendous support from two of the city’s politically connected families, the Whibbs and Donovans. Besides, Democrats always won county and district races.
“When I got through the primary, everybody started saying well you’re going to lose to Vinnie Whibbs,” said Scarborough. “The Whibbs name was a strong name, everyone knew and liked his dad. And Republicans just didn’t win in that district.”
One thing Scarborough did notice was that the Whibbs people had waited until after the GOP runoff to really start campaigning.
“By that time, my organization and Lois’ organization were both finely tuned machines,” he said. “We had been fighting tooth and nail and we were in midseason form. Either one of us would have beaten Vinnie handily—only because we had been campaigning and working so hard and they waited so late to start campaigning.”
After the runoff, Scarborough made a trip to Washington, D.C. to ask for financial support from the political action committees that traditionally supported Republican candidates. He found out how bad Gingrich and the Republican establishment had been trashing him to the PACs and lobbying groups.
“I would visit them and listen to ‘I’ve heard that you’re a right wing nut, you’re a religious fanatic. There’s no way you will ever win.’ I’d sit there and just stared at them,” Scarborough said. “First of all, I’m not a nut and secondly, I’m going to win and thirdly, you can be on the winner’s side or the loser’s side. Then I’d get up and walk out without asking for any money.”
The checks came in eventually. “They met me and realized that far from being some fanatic, I was the guy smart enough to beat Newt Gingrich and the Washington establishment and win the primary,” he said.
The National Republican Party reluctantly sent somebody down to try to help his campaign, but by that time there wasn’t a lot of help needed. Still, political analysts were saying the race between Scarborough and Whibbs was too close to call.
The New York Times felt that Scarborough was too “battered in a bitter primary and runoff” to fend off the national Democrats’ “aggressive efforts to help their nominee, Vince Whibbs, Jr.” Whibbs had the name recognition, was a military veteran and could prove he was a conservative, pointing out that he voted for George Bush in 1992.
If Scarborough was worried, he didn’t show it to New York Times reporters.
Richard Berke wrote in the article two weeks before the election, “While he acknowledges the race is tight, Mr. Scarborough is confident, if not cocky. As an interview was ending, he asked a reporter what neighborhood he should move to when he gets to Washington.”
Scarborough had a routine for Election Day, one he continued to use for his next three elections.
“I worked around the clock up to Election Day for a year and a half. On every Election Day, I just said it’s over. I’d get in the car drive across the district. Nobody with me, the radio turned off, not wanting to hear anything, not wanting to talk to anybody, sort of being in my own zone, getting right with either winning or losing.”
When he got back to Pensacola, he tuned to WEAR TV to watch the results as they came in. The first round of results came in and they had him leading 61 to 39 percent, then 62 to 38. He thought the station had the results wrong.
“I actually picked up the phone and called Channel 3. I said ‘are you sure you’ve got those numbers right?’” Scarborough said. “The New York Times had called it too close. I had actually thought they had the numbers backwards. I thought Vinnie Whibbs was ahead of me 62-38 percent and that the first couple of postings were wrong.”
The station told him they had the numbers right. Scarborough was the one ahead. Those numbers held through the night with him beating Whibbs 62-38 percent.
He admitted, “I was more shocked than anybody.”
On March 22, Scarborough stood in the kitchen of his parents’ home—the same kitchen where his mother cried when he told them he was running for Congress and his father said he was voting for the other guy—before 50 of his volunteers and friends from the 1994 campaign. Men and women who had helped him change the course of politics in Escambia County and across Northwest Florida.
“I owe so much to you for what you did,” he said. He told them about going on the air on “Morning Joe” on the 20th anniversary of the day he announced his candidacy. “I didn’t know what I would say. What was going through my mind was how much I owed you, how special that campaign was.”
Scarborough thanked them for putting their faith in a brash, unknown 31-year-old. He listed the accomplishments of tenure—cut taxes, balanced the budget, paid down the debt, cut regulations, cut the capital gains tax, passed historic welfare reform and saved Medicare.
“We did everything we said we were going to do,” he said. “It was an extraordinary run.”
Nan Weaver, Tom Sullivan and Joe’s brother, George Scarborough, organized the campaign reunion. They wanted to bring together those who made history 20 years ago.
Scarborough took a little ribbing for being on MSNBC, but there were plenty of hugs and kisses. “He’s always going to be Joe, and he will always be our Joe,” Weaver said.
The 1994 campaign was remarkable. The unknown candidate and his volunteers began a Republican revolution in Northwest Florida. Before Scarborough was elected, there wasn’t a single Republican elected to a countywide office in Escambia or Santa Rosa counties. Today Property Appraiser Chris Jones and Tax Collector Janet Holley are the only two Democrats holding countywide offices.
“After I won, suddenly everybody started switching to the Republican Party. It became the smart thing to do,” Scarborough said. “But when I ran in ’94, it seemed like a stupid thing to do. All the Republicans would tell me that we just don’t win in Northwest Florida, that’s just the way it is, and that was the way it was until I got 62 percent.”
He added, “It doesn’t matter what I do in the future, if I ever run another campaign. Nothing will ever be as significant or as important as that first race.”