TAMPA, Fla. - Florida Republicans on Saturday elected a new leader in a split vote that underscored the challenges Gov. Rick Scott faces from within his own party in his re-election effort.
With a 106-69 vote, GOP activists elected Clay County Realtor Leslie Dougher as chairwoman of the Republican Party of Florida to fill the remainder of the term of outgoing state party chief Lenny Curry.
The quarterly meeting of the state executive committee also provided an opportunity for Republicans to fire up their base and engage in a little Charlie Crist-bashing less than six months before the final ballots are cast in the governor's race.
Dougher, 50, quickly became the heir-apparent to the leadership post after Curry announced his intention to step down early this month. The Coldwell Banker Realtor from Middleburg readily won the backing of leading Republicans, including state Sen. John Thrasher, a onetime RPOF chairman from St. Augustine who serves as Scott's campaign chairman and who nominated Dougher Saturday morning.
"We are on the precipice, my friends in the Republican Party, of really making this state, as Gov. Scott loves to say, the best place to live, the best place to work and the best place to raise a family and do business," Thrasher said. "But we can't get there … if we let extraordinary issues … get in the way of that objective."
But in a large white tent outside the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, Republicans appeared divided on which direction the party should go, with 40 percent of the 173 committee members throwing their support behind Eric Miller, a 47-year-old military veteran who also once challenged disgraced RPOF former chairman Jim Greer.
Lake County state committeewoman Patricia Sullivan of Mt. Dora nominated Miller, saying later that the choice "would have re-energized a lot of grass-roots activists disillusioned with some of the decisions the party has made," pointing to controversial Common Core educational standards as an example.
Speaking with reporters after her election, Dougher discounted her margin of victory.
"It just means people have a differing view. Right now it's all about party unity and bringing it together and supporting our governor and getting him re-elected," said Dougher, who also holds the position of "chair of chairs," and is chairwoman of the RPOF "county caucus."
Scott also downplayed the dissent.
"Oh gosh. People are excited. They're excited that Leslie Dougher will do a great job. They're excited that we cut taxes $500 million. We've cut taxes 40 times. Excited about all the job openings, the dramatic change in our economy," Scott told reporters after the meeting. "This is going to be a great election year for Republicans because we're doing exactly what we talked about in 2010."
Others were less enthusiastic about Scott's evolution since taking office.
Scott campaigned on a tea party platform in his first bid for governor four years ago, pledging to bring an "Arizona-style" immigration law to the state and, in his first year in office, vetoing a record $615 million from the budget, which included $305 million of land-buying authority.
But, in an effort to reach out to Hispanic voters who could play a deciding role in November's election, Scott this legislative session endorsed a measure that will allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities.
Republican Liberty Caucus Chairman Bob White of Melbourne said he and his group were among Scott's earliest supporters and "worked very hard" four years ago but are disappointed in his handling of Common Core and in the sheer size of the state budget.
"It's not like we're extremely disappointed. We're just not satisfied," said White, who is not a member of the executive committee.
But earlier in the morning, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam warned the party faithful that a Scott loss would allow "Hillary Clinton to have a beachhead in the governor's mansion in Florida" and enable "John Morgan to control the Supreme Court." Crist, a former Republican governor running this year as a Democrat, works for Orlando trial lawyer Morgan.
"Raise your hand if you attended a Lincoln Day dinner where Charlie Crist has claimed to be either a Ronald Reagan, Connie Mack or Jeb Bush Republican," Putnam said. "Even respectable Democrats have to laugh at this guy. But he's dangerous."
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