Florida Republican leaders meet in Orlando to urge mid-term unity amid chaos

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PHOTO BY JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo by Joey Roulette
Florida Republican leaders Saturday talked of the need to drown out media chatter amid predictions of Democratic gains in this year's mid-term elections and attacks on the GOP's unconventional president.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio told members of the Republican Party of Florida gathered for an annual meeting in Orlando to stick with the game plan of policy and tax reform and judicial appointments pushed by President Donald Trump.

“All the headlines in the year to come are going to be about how Republicans are going to get wiped out because in a mid-term election, the president's party always loses seats. But I would just say this is not a conventional president,” Rubio said to applause. “I think if we've learned anything in the last year-and-a-half is that Americans have changed a lot in the way they view politics and in the way they consume news and information. And the country is facing some real stark choices.”

Party Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, a state representative from Spring Hill, advised members to maintain “grassroots” efforts that worked in 2016, as the GOP tries this year to keep the governor's mansion and state Cabinet in “capable Republican hands” and to “finally send (Democratic U.S. Sen.) Bill Nelson into a final retirement.”

“Then we (can) put the final nail in the coffin of the Florida Democratic Party,” Ingoglia added.

Still, the two-day conference was not all about rallying the troops and harmony.

In a surprisingly divisive contest among “Trump Republicans,” Kathleen King was elected to complete the final two years of the term of former Florida Republican National Committeewoman Sharon Day.

Day, a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, stepped down last year when she was named by Trump as ambassador to Costa Rica.

King, the Manatee County Republican chairwoman, was appointed in the fall as an interim replacement for Day. She received 128 votes Saturday from among 177 state party members to defeat Karen Giorno of West Palm Beach.

Giorno served as Trump's state director during the 2016 primary. But she was moved out of that role during a campaign shakeup in September 2016 that saw veteran campaign strategist Susie Wiles become the new Florida director, a matter that was played up in support of King on social media prior to Saturday's vote.

Tony Ledbetter, chairman of the Volusia County Republican Executive Committee who backed Giorno, denounced the online attacks against his candidate's lack of party credentials as “fake news.”

“For 25 years (Giorno's) been working presidential campaigns,” Ledbetter said of Giorno while both candidates met with various party caucuses Friday night.

Giorno said Saturday it was “not fair” to call her an outsider, pointing to her resume as a strategist for national Republican figures and existing relationships with Trump and Gov. Rick Scott.

She had criticized King as an “establishment figure” with no national political experience.

The party's committeewoman, committeeman and party chairman represent the state on the Republican National Committee.

Saturday's meeting also came on the heels of U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican from Palm Coast, vowing to “drain the swamp in Tallahassee” as he formally jumped into the gubernatorial contest on Friday.

Rival candidate Adam Putnam, who was among a number of statewide candidates making the rounds at the conference Friday night, dismissed the notion that the Republican-dominated state Capitol resembles the Washington quagmire.

“Washington is a swamp. A big part of the reason I left was to come home where you can make a difference, you make an impact, you can drive an agenda,” said Putnam, a congressman before getting elected in 2010 to the first of his two terms as state agriculture commissioner. “And that's exactly what we've done. We've transformed the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in the last seven years. And with Gov. Scott we have brought Florida back from the brink. I think you can pull any random 20 people out of a Circle K and ask them where the real swamp is and all of them would know that it is Washington.”

DeSantis, who on Saturday gave a partisan overview of where Congress is going in 2018, told reporters that his “swamp” comparison was more in reference to a culture where sexual harassment and entitlement behavior are rampant in both locations.

“I think the thing that we've seen in Tallahassee is a lot of people having to resign from the Legislature. A lot of bad conduct has come out. I think there are problems with harassment that need to be addressed,” DeSantis said. “In Washington, the bureaucracy really doesn't change when Republican get in there. It's a permanent bureaucracy. So, it's a little bit different.”

A number of this year's statewide candidates addressed different caucuses Friday, with some hosting ice cream socials.

State Rep. Jay Fant of Jacksonville, running for attorney general on a platform of “God and family, the United States Constitution and free enterprise,” vowed to prosecute elected officials who support “sanctuary cities” and told party members that “you want to see Planned Parenthood go away. I want to see them go away the very first day I'm attorney general.”

Former Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Ashley Moody, also running to replace term-limited Attorney General Pam Bondi, pointed to courtroom experience on issues ranging from the opioid epidemic to human trafficking and senior abuse.

“These are complicated prosecutions,” Moody said. “You need somebody who has handled these in the past. This is not time for Florida to elect an attorney general who is a politician. We need a practitioner.”

While Ingoglia noted statewide candidates in attendance, he acknowledged that some state lawmakers were excusably absent on Saturday, as this was the final weekend to raise money before Tuesday's start of the 2018 legislative session. Legislators are prohibited from fundraising during the 60-day session.

Scott, meanwhile, is widely expected to challenge Nelson for the U.S. Senate seat, though he has not declared his candidacy. Scott was not in attendance at the party meeting.

A schedule released by the governor's office had him in Hollywood on Saturday afternoon to attend services for Broward County Sheriff's Deputy Michael David Ryan, who died Dec. 31 after collapsing outside a jail.

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