Unlike other high profile tea party governors like Rick Snyder of Michigan, Ohio’s John Kasich and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has largely flown under the national media radar.

Scott has made some waves with some of his policies, which while popular with the tea party, have helped make him, along with Kasich and Walker, one of the country’s most unpopular governors.

He turned down billions of federal dollars for high speed rail, angering Republicans and Democrats who had put the rail deal together over the course of nearly a decade. He has also pushed to privatize prisons (prompting a lawsuit and an ethics complaint); signed a bill barring doctors from talking to their patients about guns in the home (which was blocked by a federal judge in September) — and he pushed for, then signed a law requiring welfare recipients to get drug tested, and pay for it (drawing yet another ”>lawsuit.)

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And Florida is the tip of the spear for conservatives’ battle against the Affordable Care Act, which conservatives refer to as “Obamacare.” Florida has taken the lead in a 14-state lawsuit against the federal government, seeking to void the individual mandate requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance or face a tax penalty — Florida’s case will be heard by the Supreme Court.

Scott, a former hospital executive whose company paid a record $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud in the 1990s, cut his political teeth as a health care opponent, founding the group Conservatives for Patients Rights to battle health care reform in 2009.

But it is Rick Scott’s moves on the political front that could place Florida at center stage, yet again, in the national elections of 2012, with a potentially negative impact on young and minority voters — and by extension, Democrats.

Florida, Florida, Florida

Florida’s fourth in the nation primary on January 31st means the state will play a high profile role in determining which candidate runs against President Obama (and whether a Republican can be fielded who can beat Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.) Scott pushed for the date, which jumped ahead in the calendar from a mandated March 6th date.

The move threatens to deprive Florida of its convention delegates if the Republican Party chooses to sanction the state, and it will make it hard for candidates who can’t afford to compete in four election contests in a single month. But Scott argued that Florida should go early, and have a date all to itself, because of its unique demographics.

Florida is home to a substantial share of seniors, and it will be the first primary state with a sizable Hispanic voting bloc. Hispanics make up 14 percent of the electorate in Florida, and nearly half are Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans in South Florida. Scott won half of Hispanic voters in 2010 thanks to that conservative voting bloc.
Better know a district

Florida’s 27 electoral votes will be 29 in 2012, thanks to a population surge ahead of the 2010 Census. And redistricting in the state offers a rare opportunity for Democrats, since voters in 2010 passed a pair of constitutional amendments mandating that state and federal redistricting be done on the basis of geography, effectively outlawing political gerrymandering.

That could shake up the state that has one of the highest incumbency retention rates in the U.S. at 98 percent, and Democrats are hoping to pick up at least one of the two new House seats Florida will gain in 2012. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting a total pick-up of six U.S. House seats thanks to redistricting, and Scott’s unpopularity.

Scott tried to slow the implementation of the redistricting amendments, withdrawing a request for federal approval as required under the Voting Rights Act, that had been submitted by the previous Republican governor, Charlie Crist. That prompted a lawsuit against Scott’s administration in February — one of several naming the governor this year.

The amendments ultimately were submitted to the Justice Department for approval by the state legislature this spring, though two members of Congress, Republican Mario Diaz Balart, who is Cuban-American, and Democrat Corinne Brown, who is African-American, have filed their own lawsuit to try and stop redistricting reform, saying it would reduce minority representation in Florida’s congressional delegation.

Voting while black?

The end of political gerrymandering in Florida doesn’t mean politics won’t interfere with voting in Florida in 2012. In May, Scott signed one of the most restrictive voting laws in the U.S. — reducing the early voting period from 14 days to eight, which is expected to affect black voters and churches, by taking the Sunday before Election Day off the calendar; imposing tough new restrictions and penalties on organizations that register people to vote, and forcing anyone who has to change their voter registration information on election day to cast a provisional ballot.

The restrictions caused some organizations, including the League of Women Voters, to stop registering voters in Florida, which could be a blow to the kinds of voters many of these groups target: young voters, women and minorities, all of whom tend to favor Democrats at the polls.

Scott and his supporters said the law was necessary to combat voter fraud, though Florida’s secretary of state, Kurt Browning, couldn’t name an instance of voter fraud in Florida the law would apply to. Opponents including the ACLU have filed suit over the law.

Scott’s administration has filed a lawsuit of its own, ”>going to federal court last month to ask that Voting Rights Act restrictions on five Florida counties be lifted, so those counties — which are under VRA mandates due to past disenfranchisement of minority voters — can implement the new law.

Meanwhile, Scott also rolled back former Gov. Crist’s easing of restrictions on voting by former felons who have served their sentences — a move also expected to hurt Democrats in 2012, since Florida’s prison population is disproportionately black and brown. Florida is one of a handful of states — all in the south or west — that retain Reconstruction-era restrictions on voting by former felons. In Florida, people who have served their prison terms must wait at least five years to apply for the restoration of their rights. Critics likened Scott’s return to those rules as a reinstution of Jim Crow.

How he won

Scott was elected in the GOP wave in 2010, defeating a weak Democratic opponent, former state CFO Alex Sink, whose lack of attention to the African-American vote cost her in a race where Scott’s margin of victory was just 60,000 votes. Scott, who chose a black woman, Jennifer Carroll, as his running-mate, got just 3 percent of the black vote.

Scott ran as the kind of businessman-turned-politician the tea party base of the GOP tends to favor. And Scott ran on a simple message: “let’s get to work,” which is being echoed by the Mitt Romney presidential campaign; and a simple economic plan: “777” (which stood for “seven steps, seven years, 700,000 jobs) – which might sound familiar to anyone who has followed Herman Cain and his “9-9-9” plan.

Some of Scott’s senior campaign team now work for the Rick Perry presidential campaign, which is fitting given Scott’s Texas ties — he was one of George W. Bush’s partners as an owner of the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball team.

And Scott’s winning formula: simple slogans, choking off press access to the candidate (Scott refused to sit down with a single newspaper editorial board during his gubernatorial run and remains an elusive interview in the state); and methodically dismantling his opponent via slick, expensive television ads paid for with $78 million of his own money — could be a template for the GOP presidential nominee in 2012.