The final stretch of the race to become the Republican Party of Florida's next chairman has turned nasty.
At the center of the controversy? Joe Gruters.
Gruters is in a tough spot. Working as the Vice Chair of the Republican Party of Florida, he is not only torn by party commitments, but has a friendship that goes back a decade to take into consideration.
It’s been two months since Sarasota Republican committeeman Christian Ziegler announced he would make a run for the top spot at the party, but those months haven’t been easy.
Mud-slinging has become commonplace in the race for party chair. Candidates are flinging criticisms at each other behind the scenes, while each runs with their own vision on how to make the party succeed.
The tone of the race has divided members of the party and turned them against each other, casting doubt on just how pivotal each candidate has been in Florida politics.
It’s gotten so bad, other party officials are stepping in to say they’re upset over how it’s going.
Gruters is one of them.
“I am disheartened at the negative campaigning that has been interjected into the Chairman’s race,” he wrote in an email going around the group to help Ingoglia’s reelection campaign.
The people behind Ziegler, Gruters said, are saying Ingoglia didn’t do his fair share to help get President-elect Donald Trump to the White House. And that narrative, he says, is totally wrong.
“Christian Ziegler has been one of my close friends and a local ally for the last 10 years,” Gruters wrote. “But, the people supporting his campaign for Chairman of the Party are pushing a false narrative on Christian’s behalf.”
Gruters does not name who is pushing the “false narrative.” Instead, he said, the party’s strength must be found in unity, not by running an attack campaign to dog the party faithful. The last thing the party needs, he said, is a “divisive Chairman’s race to sow seeds of dissent.”
Unfortunately, those seeds have already seemed to have taken root.
Though no names were given in the email, signs could point to Trump’s staffers in Florida, some of whom vehemently oppose putting Ingoglia back in the position of party chair.
Take Trump Florida director Karen Giorno, for example.
Giorno told Sunshine State News Ingoglia was a divisive character in Trump’s Florida operation and in Florida politics. When he took the reins of the party in 2015, Senate Republicans and Rick Scott split. Giorno says that alone speaks volumes.
“Blaise is a good person, but when you’ve knocked heads with governor and the chief director and strategist of the nominee, and are building an agenda that’s counter-productive to winning an election to keep the state red, then I don’t know how you build the argument that you deserve a second chance at state leadership,” she told SSN. “Blaise wasn’t in the field. He was part of the problem.”
Trump ended up winning Florida, but Giorno says not to give the credit to Ingoglia.
“He had nothing to do with the win here,” she said. “In fact, we almost lost because of him.”
Another figure pushing the anti-Ingoglia narrative is Dolly Rump, the Trump campaign’s chairwoman from Broward County.
Ingoglia told SSN Rump has been behind a lot of the campaigning against him, sending out emails to members casting doubt on where Ingoglia's loyalties were in the March primary.
“She’s been spreading information stating that I was not neutral in the primary,” he said.
There’s also a suggestion Rump might be close with Gov. Scott, who has refused to come back into the party fold since Ingoglia took over. Rump was appointed by Scott to head the Early Learning Coalition of Broward County in 2015. Two years later, Scott is still giving the party the cold shoulder.
Sources in Broward County told SSN it's all part of a political payback from pro-Scott Republicans.
One told SSN Ingoglia had meddled in the Broward County 17th Circuit Court judgeship race between Nina DiPietro over Brenda Di Ioia. DiPietro is married to former Broward Health chairman David DiPietro, who Scott suspended for allegedly interfering into a state investigation on the Broward Health system. DiPietro later sued Scott, leaving their friendship irreparably damaged.
The Broward County Republican Executive Committee initially voted not to endorse DiPietro for the judgeship, but the source told SSN Ingoglia demanded the Broward REC go from not endorsing her to endorsing her for the job, which was seen as a slap to Scott. DiPietro won her election.
Former party leaders have even taken notice of the biting politics of the chairman race. Former RPOF Chair Carole Jean Jordan told Sunshine State News Wednesday she had been in contact with candidates for the race, but refused to comment on either one due to the intensely negative nature of the race.
Jordan told SSN she sincerely hoped the party held onto its core message and moved forward.
“It gives me a frustrating perspective when I know the values we have brought to the table [in the past],” she said. “We have stumbled, we have to be sure what we said we were going to do, we are going to do that.”
Gruters, for one, has remained neutral in the race for chair, essentially going to bat for both candidates, but the message sent out was under Ingoglia’s headline.
Still, he said he hoped for the best. Ingoglia is his coworker and fellow state lawmaker. Ziegler is his longtime friend.
“We are fortunate to have two candidates that want to work to make the party great,” he wrote. “I want to see this Chairman’s race cross the finish line with class and integrity, and the Party quickly unifying and working toward 2018.”
Ingoglia said he was thankful for Gruters' defense.
"It was helping to set the record straight about what actually happened during the campaign," he said. "There’s been a lot of misinformation floating around by some people trying to influence the chairman’s election."
Sunshine State News contacted both Gruters and Ziegler but neither had returned calls at the time of this article’s release.
The election will be held Saturday in Orlando.