Republican challenger for state party chair Christian Ziegler denies he is running a "scorched earth" campaign, as some committee men and women around the state complain.
"Why would I do that?" Ziegler asked me Tuesday night. "I know we all have to come together and be friends and work for victory when this is over."
Certainly that is the hope.
But four different state committee people have called this week to say Party Chair Blaise Ingoglia, running for a second term, is on the wrong side of an increasingly predatory campaign that goes above and beyond a normal GOP election.
"I don't get how the guy who inspired me to work for the party and winds up on a landslide winning side can be so trashed," said one of the several committeeman who asked not to be identified in print. "I like Christian, but who is he to treat Blaise like we got all our wins in spite of him? That's just not true. It definitely isn't true for me."
But in a phone conversation Tuesday night, Ziegler insisted he's been campaigning hard but clean -- certainly not "out to destroy" his opponent.
Ziegler, the GOP state committeeman for Sarasota County, said he spends all his time -- literally -- crisscrossing the state to meet with the 256 members of the party's executive committee who will vote in the race Saturday in Orlando.
"I've sat on their couches, I've visited them in the hospital, I've gone out to the dinner with them," he has said. "That's how you win. It's like Iowa."
He said, "I pride myself on running a clean campaign, I go overboard not to get in the mud ...
"Now, if some of my supporters are talking about the things they haven't liked during Blaise's term as chair, then I can't control how they choose to express themselves," he said.
Ingoglia is a businessman and a legislator with a busy agenda in Tallahassee; Ziegler, who was launching his own new media company in Sarasota, stopped working altogether so he could run an aggressive campaign -- "run to win." Ziegler's supporters claim it's better that their man has no distractions, no "external baggage," no conflicts of interest between raising money for himself and for the party.
Ziegler has said he will be a full-time party leader and that's how it should be. Maybe. But it's been a long time since the RPOF had a chairman with no other job. Leslie Dougher was a real estate agent, Lenny Curry owned his own accounting firm, Dave Bittner was a lobbyist and John Thrasher served as a state senator -- one of the Senate's leaders at that -- the whole time he chaired the RPOF.
Let me make myself clear: I am entirely impartial in the Republican Party of Florida chair race. May the better man win.
But after following Blaise Ingoglia for two years, I do find myself running to his defense when I hear derision I know he doesn't deserve.
For example, I'm hearing Ziegler supporters scoffing at what they characterize as a dearth of accomplishments during Ingoglia's tenure. "What's he done? Where are these reforms he promised?" they ask.
Say, what? I see plenty of accomplishments. For one thing, in the cycle after redistricting went against them, Republicans won almost everything out there. On Ingoglia's watch. Was it all because of him? Of course not. I'm not saying that and neither is he. But it is a fact and surely success -- that's the name of the game -- has to count for something in his favor.
Even if you think Ingoglia coulda/shoulda done more, the things he managed to pull off, he did in spite of Gov. Rick Scott, titular head of the party. Scott -- angered because he didn't get his candidate, Leslie Dougher, elected in the last party chair election -- never raised a dime, lifted a finger or otherwise helped the RPOF in its Herculean election mission.
And I get angry when I hear people say that Ingoglia didn't back Donald Trump at the beginning, and because of that, he didn't give the Trump camp credit or its "proper respect" for delivering votes to the party up and down the ballot on election day. Now that really is baloney.
The day after the election, Ingoglia told me just the opposite. "The Florida Trump people worked like dogs" were his exact words. How is that ungrateful?
In a Facebook posting Tuesday Ziegler wrote, "While I may not be sure about every potential dynamic of this race (I'm no Tallahassee insider), I hope everyone has seen that I've been running a race that is focused on strengthening the Republican Party of Florida and laying out a vision of how I believe the party should be led and which direction it should head."
It's almost over. Thank the Lord.
Ingoglia thinks he's got enough pledges to win Saturday; Ziegler says the vote itself is secret -- that we'll be surprised how many executive committee members who pledged their troth to Ingoglia, will vote for him instead.
After that, whoever wins, the sides will have to find a way to heal wounds that seem to deepen by the day.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith
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