Urged on by prominent far right figures such as Steve Bspannnon and Michspanel Flynn, ultra conservative GOP activists are seeking to take over county parties across Florida during leadership elections this month.
Some have failed, such as the recent effort to instspanll span Flynn spancolyte as county party chair in Sarasota County.
Some already have been successful. Candidates backed by far right businessman Alfie Oakes, who was at the U.S. Capitol when it was overrun by Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, took over the Collier County GOP.
Other leadership battles are still playing out.
Whatever happens, the wave of far right activity across Florida shows how former President Donald Trump continues to reshape the party.
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‘America First’ candidates
Many of the activists seeking control of local parties have been motivated by Trump’s stolen election claims and his battles with the GOP establishment. They often identity as “America First” candidates, a slogan with a long history in American politics that Trump popularized again.
In Lee County, an activist backed by Flynn who worked for an affiliate of The America Project, a nonprofit Flynn is involved with that promotes Trump’s unfounded election fraud allegations, ran for the the top county party position. The Lee activist, Michael Thompson, posted on Facebook recently that the Arizona election “was stolen” from Kari Lake, the failed far right candidate for governor. Thompson wants to create a committee within the Lee GOP focused on “election integrity.”
In Pinellas County, activist and conservative author Cathi Chamberlain, who worked as campaign manager for a Jan. 6 defendant who ran for Congress from jail, is running for county party chair. Chamberlain emphasized “the stolen election in 2020” when she announced her campaign at a Pinellas GOP meeting last month.
In Lake County, far right former state House member Anthony Sspanbspantini is running for county party chair amid speculation he might use the post to run for state party chair. Sabatini is an ardent Trump supporter who has frequently battled with members of his own party. He recently tweeted — without any evidence — that “2022 may have even MORE election fraud than 2020.”
Fizzled red wave
The focus on 2020 was a problem for the GOP this election cycle. Candidates such as Lake, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and others who embraced Trump’s election denialism lost key races, causing a predicted red wave to fizzle.
Florida was a different story. Gov. Ron DeSspanntis, who has avoided directly answering questions about whether he believes the 2020 election was stolen, won big.
Yet the 2020 election continues to motivate many on the far right, even in Florida, a state Trump carried by three points over Biden. Trump’s national loss to Biden left many in the GOP frustrated and searching for ways to have influence on the political process.
“The party’s on fire, people want to see change and there’s not change happening and they look at the party as a way to change,” said Florida GOP Chair Joe Gruters.
Trump’s unwillingness to accept defeat shaped how the GOP responded to 2020, prompting many in the party to channel their energy into the stolen election narrative.
Flynn was at the forefront of that effort nationally. He was deeply involved in trying to overturn the 2020 election. His nonprofit helped fund a controversial recount in Arizona.
In Florida, Flynn has been allied with Defend Florida, a loosely organized group that gathered thousands of “affidavits” that the organization implies are possible instances of voter fraud, claims law enforcement and election authorities have dismissed.
Chamberlain has been heavily involved with Defend Florida, and Thompson also is aligned with the group.
In Manatee County, GOP Chair Steve Vernon said he’s also being challenged by a Defend Florida volunteer.
The group of activists trying to unseat Vernon has called him a RINO — which stands for “Republican in Name Only” — even though he once led a tea party group and once challenged Gruters, a prominent Trump ally, from the right for a state House seat.
“I’m the ex-president of the tea party, yet they’re calling me a RINO and I’m thinking what world are you in?” Vernon said. “I’m no more RINO than the man on the moon. That’s how bad it is.”
Vernon identifies as a staunch conservative, but he said the people challenging him are “so far right” they’re “off the planet.”
“I am conservative, however, they want to take it to the stratosphere. They have a 100% purity test,” Vernon said.
Vernon said he blames former Trump adviser Steve Bannon for all the pressure on county GOP leaders from the right. Bannon uses his “War Room” program to promote a takeover of the GOP at the local level and build from there, until the party has been transformed statewide and nationally.
Flynn has pushed a similar message. After failing to overturn the 2020 election, he bought a home in Englewood in Southwest Florida and launched a series of initiatives aimed at engaging the GOP base. Flynn’s motto is “Local Action = National Impact.” He has demonstrated his commitment by joining the Sarasota GOP executive committee and volunteering as a precinct captain.
Bannon talks about taking over the GOP “precinct by precinct.”
Flynn and other far right individuals backed GOP activist Conni Brunni for Sarasota GOP chair but she fell short by 33 votes to Jack Brill, who was endorsed by the vast majority of GOP elected officials in the county.
Chamberlain also likely faces an uphill battle against Adam Ross, a prosecutor who works as executive director of the state attorney’s office covering Pinellas County and has a long list of endorsements from local GOP leaders.
Republicans were hugely successful in Pinellas this cycle, and Ross says he wants to continue the “professional leadership” that has proven effective.
“I think it’s good to have a spirited debate, but I don’t want to see it turn negative where we start using terms like RINO and that,” Ross said. “We all need to work together, we’re all part of the big tent. When I’m chairman everybody will be welcome but it has to stay professional.”
Chamberlain is critical of Ross, the current vice chair of the Pinellas GOP, saying he hasn’t been aggressive enough in investigating claims of voter fraud. The fraud issue drove her decision to run for party chair. Nationwide, nearly 60 federal judges, including those appointed by Trump, dismissed lawsuits filed by former president and his allies challenging the 2020 election or its outcome.
“When the establishment was going around telling everybody to keep quiet about the 2020 election my question was why? Why aren’t we hitting this head on?” Chamberlain said of Trump’s fraud allegations. “I’m a former building contractor and I can tell you if the foundation of a building I was working on wasn’t solid I wouldn’t take one step forward until it was fixed.”
Ross says the local party has taken “election integrity very seriously.”
With Trump running for president again, questions about the 2020 election are likely to continue dividing the party.
“The Republican Party, there’s no question about it is split in half right now,” Chamberlain said. “And the establishment rules currently and the America Firsters… are fighting to regain the values our party stands for.”