Florida Politics

One of Trump’s closest allies in Florida takes control of the state Republican party

Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, speaks at a news conference on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, at Mote Marine in Sarasota. He addressed an executive order meant to fix algae problems that have plagued the state.
Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, speaks at a news conference on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, at Mote Marine in Sarasota. He addressed an executive order meant to fix algae problems that have plagued the state.

One of Donald Trump’s closest allies in Florida has been named chairman of the state party, strengthening the president’s already strong grip on the nation’s largest swing state ahead of his reelection bid in 2020.

Florida Sen. Joe Gruters, the co-chairman of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in Florida, was picked Saturday by activists to lead the Republican Party of Florida. As expected, he overwhelmingly defeated Charlotte County’s Bob Starr to snare a two-year term and succeed state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who chose not to run for reelection. Christian Ziegler, a 2016 Trump media surrogate also from Sarasota, was elected vice chairman.

Underscoring his loyalty to the president, Gruters, the 41-year-old longtime leader of Sarasota County Republicans, handed out red “Keep Florida Great” hats ahead of the vote at the state party’s annual meeting in Orlando. In an interview this week, he made clear that supporting Trump will be the party’s top priority.

“We have a singular focus over the next two years,” Gruters said. “And that’s getting our president reelected.”

Gruters’ ascension bodes well for the president and could help strengthen a weakened organization by further unifying a party that as of late last year still had divided loyalties.

Trump’s rise came at the expense of former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, and his divisive rhetoric and flip-flopping disillusioned some prominent Republicans. The party apparatus, meanwhile, has had an up-and-down decade, with chairman Jim Greer resigning amid scandal in 2010 and Gov. Rick Scott withdrawing his machine and money from the party after Ingoglia defeated his hand-picked chairwoman in 2015.

The party has maintained control over the House, Senate and governor’s mansion, despite challenging political climates. But Senate Republicans also withdrew after Ingoglia became chair, choosing not to work under a member of the lower chamber of the Legislature.

“Right now, the party organization, everybody has somewhat been doing their own thing. The party is a fraction of what it used to be at a statewide level,” said Gruters, who praised Ingoglia for running strong elections in 2016 and 2018 with limited resources and coordination.

Susie Wiles, a Republican strategist who worked with Gruters as the other co-chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign in Florida, said Gruters should see fundraising and coordination improved under a more aligned party. Still, his challenges will include the sharing of information and resources with Senate and House Republicans, and continuing to work with local parties and activists. Ingoglia focused on the grass roots during his time as chairman, but previously the party had neglected things like voter registration and local elections.

“The party can and should go back to the days where it had sufficient resources to do what the Republican Party of Florida can and should do, which is build grassroots from the bottom up,” said Wiles, who led transition efforts for new Gov. Ron DeSantis.

While no one expects the party to return to its glory days, the good news for Gruters is that Florida Republicans are already gelling again. Trump flexed his strength in Florida last year when his support of DeSantis helped the former congressman him rise from relative obscurity to claim the party’s nomination for governor over Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a veteran of Florida’s Republican politics. And Ingoglia improved the party’s connections with activists on the ground and successfully boosted turnout among crucial absentee voters, who voted at a historic rate in November.

“The future of the party is bright, but it’s going to be what we make with it,” said Ingoglia. “If we stick with the grassroots strategy, we’re going to be successful.”

Gruters, who has also served in the state House, said his breadth of experience will help steer the party from the bottom to the top. He expects Florida Republicans to be in sync and focused on 2020.

“I think we’ll have the resources we need. I think people understand the importance that Florida has on the national election,” he said. “Donald Trump can’t be our president if he can’t win Florida.”