Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia continues to roll out sizeable endorsement lists and may be approaching critical mass, but challenger Christian Ziegler keeps chipping away.
Just over three weeks remain until more than two hundred Republican Party of Florida executive committee (REC) members will convene in Orlando to decide who will lead the fractured but still functional party into the 2018 election cycle.
On Saturday, January 14th, 2017, the two men will face off against one another and at least one other announced candidate. Under party rules, qualified candidates can jump into the fray at the last minute.
The stakes are high, certainly for the candidates, but more so for the future of the RPOF.
In 2018, all four Republican members of the Florida Cabinet – governor, attorney general, chief financial officer, and agriculture commissioner – are term-limited out. Republicans will not only have to nominate replacement candidates in what is sure to be a contentious primary season, they will then need to defeat whomever the Democrats nominate, just to maintain the status quo.
The next election cycle will also almost certainly produce a Republican challenger to Democrat Senator Bill Nelson, a fifth statewide contest that will divert yet more valuable resources away from Republicans running for state house and senate seats. It’s a monumental task, even more so because the RPOF will largely be on their own in an off-year cycle with no presidential race to galvanize national support.
Many believe Florida’s Republican Party is fractured because Ingoglia is concurrently serving in the Florida House of Representatives, a post that potentially puts him in direct conflict with Senate Republicans and Governor Rick Scott, all who have competing priorities – not only in the upcoming legislative session – but perhaps in the form of 2018 election ambitions, too.
Despite the discord, Ingoglia has managed to roll out wave after wave of endorsements in an attempt to swamp Ziegler, who is campaigning to unite the RPOF in time for 2018.
First, Ingoglia trumpeted the support of 114 voting members, then, days later, announced the endorsements of 11 congressmen supporting his reelection bid.
“And most of them will show up and cast a vote,” Ingoglia told The Capitolist. “When it comes to counting votes in a small caucus, I have a pretty good history of being accurate.”
In 2014, he undershot his final vote total by just two, projecting he would receive 130 votes. The final tally had him 132-90 over Leslie Dougher, making him chairman.
After announcing the congressional caucus support, he announced support from Susie Wiles, who managed Trump’s Florida campaign in the closing months. Although she doesn’t have a vote, the announcement was a shot at undercutting Ziegler, who was among the first Florida Republicans to publicly support Trump early in the primary. Ingoglia then followed with an announcement from Senator Marco Rubio and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, both of whom signaled their support. And Ingoglia didn’t stop there. This week, he released the names of another 23 supporters he says will vote for him on January 14th.
The math is daunting, to be sure. But Ziegler says it doesn’t add up. For the past month, he has crisscrossed the state, sitting down with executive committee members, trying to win their support. There are 256 voting members of the RPOF State Executive Committee who will decide the outcome, and Ziegler says he’s already got a big chunk of those votes.
“A large percentage of his [Ingoglia’s] list have privately committed their votes to me,” he says, ticking off the names of a number of Ingoglia’s endorsers on the condition they not be identified in this story.
Ziegler then ticks off some categories: some names were added without permission. Some were misled as to which candidates were actually in the race for chairman. A few are no longer members of the voting executive committee. And some, Ziegler says, were pressured to be put on Ingoglia’s list, even though they will cast their ballots in secret for Ziegler.
Asked for evidence to back up his claims, Ziegler said that most didn’t want to go on the record for fear they’d be caught in the crossfire of a contentious race. But after some coaxing, he did provide names – on condition they would not be identified in the story – of nearly a dozen people who agreed to provide evidence they supported Ziegler, and their reasoning. The Capitolist spoke with, emailed or texted with all of them to verify their intent to support him. And while none wanted to talk on the record, many were more than willing to provide anonymous quotes.
“The downturn of the Florida GOP’s fundraising effort is directly attributable to a lack of cohesiveness between the Governor, the Senate, and the House,” says one voting member whose name appeared on Ingoglia’s list, but who asked not to be identified. “If left with the current chair (Ingoglia) the Florida GOP will enter the 2018 races with the lowest funds in recent memory. How can we continue with only one leg of a stool?”
Ingoglia took issue with that characterization, pointing to public records that show the party raised and spent $22 million during the 2015-2016 election cycle, including around $200,000 from the Florida Senate in the closing months. Sources also tell The Capitolist that RPOF will report close to $3.6 million in cash on hand at the end of the reporting period.
But other voting members of the executive committee either aren’t aware of the financial picture, or they believe the party can, and must, raise more money. Through phone calls and emails, The Capitolist obtained permission from one REC member whose name appears on Ingoglia’s list to publish their anonymous message of support for Ziegler, and confirmed the authenticity of several others, but those members asked that their messages not be published.
One voting member whose name also appeared on Blaise’s list said, “Having a functional party infrastructure, with everyone on the same page and everyone working together to raise money, will be key to our success in 2018. At this time we have neither.”
Another took aim at Ingoglia’s endorsement list: “In the last presidential primary, Jeb Bush touted more endorsements from generals, senators and significant political names than the other 17 Republican candidates combined. How did that work out?”
But endorsements in a full-blown election only represent a tiny fraction of the total vote. In the RPOF chairman’s contest, 120 votes might be enough to win. And even if Ziegler’s math is correct, Ingoglia’s support may be approaching that magic number already.
But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, as the saying goes, and in light of the surprises of the 2016 election cycle, Ingoglia isn’t taking the race for granted, either. In the past week alone, Ingoglia paid a visit to nine different counties: Suwannee, Martin, Baker, Levy, Jackson, Holmes, Washington, Wakulla, Dixie and Taylor, meeting with REC members in an effort to solidify his support.
“People on my list chose to be on my list and chose to be public about my support,” Ingoglia said. “I would challenge Christian to put out a list of his supporters. I’m not taking anything for granted. I never shy away from competition. I will fight for every single vote in the Republican Party. The grassroots elected me, because I was a grassroots chairman and they wanted to reform the party. We did that and delivered on all promises including getting President-elect Trump elected.”
Ziegler, bracing for a new wave of support coming for Ingoglia this week, discounts public endorsements.
“Let’s be honest, it’s difficult to publicly go against a sitting member of the legislature and chairman who puts a lot of pressure for you to add your name to their endorsement list,” Ziegler said. “And as Representative Ingoglia was tied up with his legislative responsibilities, I was crisscrossing the state, meeting with the grassroots leaders of our party, understanding the additional support they believe that they need from the RPOF, and laying out my plan to strengthen our party going forward. I’m confident that when the secret ballot is held, our party leaders will cast their vote for who they believe can best lead our Republican Party going forward.”