ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — If there were any doubts about what Florida Republicans were focused on during their annual meeting this weekend, the giveaway was the book every registrant received upon checking in: “Trump’s Enemies.”
Hundreds of party activists in Orlando on Saturday picked local party leaders as well as the next chair of the Republican Party of Florida, state Sen. Joe Gruters. But for most participants, the meeting marked the start of efforts to get President Trump re-elected in the nation’s biggest swing state.
“This is the beginning of the 2020 election,” said outgoing party chairman Blaise Ingoglia. “It basically kicks off President Trump’s campaign here in the state of Florida. He may not kick it off officially, but for us, it starts the groundwork for the work going into the 2020 election.”
Already, local party leaders were planning tea parties to recruit volunteers for the 2020 campaign and reaching out to new Floridians in order to register them to vote.
Paula Bedner, a Republican activist in Sumter County, already had two tea parties scheduled for next week.
“It’s the personal connections that make a difference,” Bedner said.
John Temple, chair of the Sumter County Republicans, said his focus was on registering new voters. Sumter County, home to the retirement community The Villages, is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, and new residents moving from out of state often arrive not realizing they are unable to vote in primaries if they are registered as “no party affiliation”, or “NPA.”
“We have such a high influx of people moving into the county. We want to be working with our NPA friends to let them know they can’t vote in the primaries,” Temple said.
Newly inaugurated Gov. Ron DeSantis said he expected the 2020 election to be even more acrimonious than races in 2016 and 2018. He said the most important thing the Florida party could do is register voters.
“If it’s not the sexiest thing to do in politics, it’s often the most effective,” DeSantis said. “I think we can win the 2020 election for Donald Trump in 2019 with the leg work.”
During last year’s election, Republicans won races for governor and U.S. senator by razor-thin margins. Democrats picked up several seats in the Florida House and a state senate seat, as well as two U.S. congressional seats. Despite the Democratic wins, Florida Republicans said they are well-positioned for the presidential race.
“You tinker and you change the message and you come out a little bit stronger,” said Evan Peter, chair of the Republican Party of Leon County.
But Robert Starr, who was Gruters’ only opponent for the chairmanship, said he believes the Republican Party at the national level has a lot of work to do based on losses in the 2018 election.
“We lost some seats that maybe we shouldn’t have lost,” Starr said. “Florida did well. We did very well.”
Starr, a former Charlotte County commissioner, said he ran for the chairmanship to give Republican activists a choice and because Gruters was wearing too many hats to give the proper attention to the job.
“This guy is the Energizer Bunny. What we need is a fulltime chairman,” Starr said. “We need a fulltime chairman who can raise the money and support the party.”
Gruters, the new state chairman, is a former co-chair of Trump’s Florida campaign and owns an accounting firm in Sarasota. He is a past chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County and is closely aligned with Trump and DeSantis.
“You better believe we will deliver for our president,” Gruters said. “And make the sequel better than the original.”
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