Politics

Florida Republican Party battles slump in fundraising

State Republican Chairman Blaise Ingoglia is sworn in as a member of the Florida House in November.
State Republican Chairman Blaise Ingoglia is sworn in as a member of the Florida House in November. Florida House of Representatives

This should be a time for the Republican Party of Florida to rake in the dollars.

It controls the political agenda with a Republican in the governor’s mansion, two party favorite sons in contention for the White House and commanding majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.

Instead, the state party is in the middle of its worst fundraising stretch in six years amid growing disunity within the GOP ranks and donors forsaking the party to instead put their money into the political action committees of favored candidates.

Between April and June, the RPOF raised just $1.9 million — marking the lowest fundraising quarter for the state’s dominant party since 2009 when the GOP was reeling from President Barack Obama’s winning the presidency. Back then, the party was led by Jim Greer, who resigned later that year and eventually pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering of party donations.

Since January when new chairman Blaise Ingoglia took over, the party has raised just $7.2 million. While well ahead of the Florida Democratic Party’s $4.3 million year-to-date, the numbers are more than a million dollars shy of party fundraising heading into the 2012 presidential election cycle. Most years, the RPOF has raised at least $8.4 million by July.

Ingoglia has been hampered by the fact that he is also a member of the Florida House of Representatives. When the Legislature is in session, he is barred from raising money by legislative rules. The Legislature met from March to May, then again in special session in June. More specials sessions are on tap this month and in October.

Ingoglia, who represents Spring Hill, said the special session in June definitely got in the way of him rebuilding the party’s financial infrastructure, one of his goals when he took over.

“I think you will see much better fundraising numbers coming up,” Ingoglia said.

But critics say the problem is deeper. The dissension goes back to the way that Ingoglia came to power, said Lew Oliver, longtime chairman of the Orange County Republican Party. He said the State Republican Executive Committee, which selects the chairman, voted for Ingoglia over Gov. Rick Scott’s choice, Clay County Republican Leslie Dougher.

Typically Republican governors in Florida have been given deference to choose who they want. Not only did party regulars disrespect Scott by picking someone else, Oliver said, but the rift caused Scott to pull $580,000 he raised for the party out the day before the vote. The Florida Senate followed suit, pulling more than $700,000 it helped raise for the party.

Some House members are still convinced Ingoglia is angling to become the House speaker himself in 2020. Orlando Republican Eric Eisnaugle has already secured the votes to become speaker then. Oliver said Republicans loyal to Eisnaugle say they are hesitant to help the RPOF raise money if they think it will be used by Ingoglia to upend Eisnaugle.

“It creates an appearance of a conflict and it has hobbled the fundraising,” Oliver said of making a House member the RPOF chairman.

But Ingoglia said he is not using his position to become speaker, is determined to help all Republicans get re-elected in 2016 and expand the GOP majorities. While Scott and the Senate pulled their money out in January, Ingoglia said he’s talking to both Scott and Senate leaders now.

“We’re all getting focused on the task at hand,” Ingoglia said about the 2016 election cycle.

He points to the Jacksonville mayoral race that Republican Lenny Curry won as evidence that the party is still functioning at a high level despite the fundraising drop off.

“We made a substantial investment in that race,” Ingoglia said, citing more than $1.8 million spent on one political media buying firm based in Virginia called Multi Media Service Corp.

A decline in money to the state party might also be a sign of the splintering of fundraising that has happened nationally and statewide over the last few years, said Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political science professor.

Scott, members of the Florida Cabinet and state legislators have all created their own political action committees to raise money separate from the party so they have more control over it. Those financial vehicles are essentially competing with the RPOF for donations. Scott’s Let’s Get to Work political committee and Adam Putnam’s committee, called Florida Grown, combined to raise $2.5 million from donors from April to June — more than the entire Republican Party of Florida raised during the same time period.

State senators are also successfully competing with the party. Political committees run by powerful Tampa Bay-area Sens. Tom Lee of Brandon, Bill Galvano of Bradenton and Jack Latvala of Clearwater, combined to raise $2.3 million in the first half of the year.

“There’s distrust in the party leadership,” said Smith, the UF professor. “They’re saying, ‘Why put the money in a vessel we don’t trust?’ ”

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace

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