Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio is interviewed after a speech in Coral Gables, Fla., in December 2009. A new poll shows Rubio in a virtual dead heat in the race against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio is interviewed after a speech in Coral Gables, Fla., in December 2009. A new poll shows Rubio in a virtual dead heat in the race against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Lynne Sladky/AP
Dissension and unrest by conservative Republicans are causing problems for party leaders across the country, but nowhere more so than in Florida. This week, Republican dissidents forced the resignation of state party Chairman Jim Greer, a man closely linked with Florida's moderate Gov. Charlie Crist.
The turmoil is very likely to carry through Florida's upcoming Republican U.S. Senate primary.
It Started With A Hug
Many say it began with the hug — a brief embrace Crist received from President Obama when they appeared together last February.
But the fault lines in Florida's GOP began to widen over the summer. That's when Chairman Jim Greer attempted to throw the party's endorsement behind Crist, who has announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.
Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio was already campaigning for the Senate nomination when Crist decided he wanted the job. Palm Beach County GOP Chairman Sid Dinerstein says, for many in the party, Greer's move crossed the line.
"When Greer tried to literally muscle Rubio out of the race," Dinerstein says, "the party said, 'No more,' and that led to a revolution."
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (left) attends a December bill-signing ceremony in Fort Lauderdale.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (left) attends a December bill-signing ceremony in Fort Lauderdale. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Through the fall, the attacks against Greer built. This week, he announced that he was stepping down.
In a conference call with reporters, Greer said his critics have just two goals.
"And the first one is to remove me as chairman," he said. "And if that doesn't work, burn the house down and try to destroy the Republican Party."
For Democrats who have their own troubles, the turmoil here in Florida's Republican Party has been welcome. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine called it a "civil war" and a quest to "eliminate moderate voices and enact an extreme right-wing agenda."
Much of the unrest here comes from conservatives, many of them Rubio supporters. But Bill Bunting, a former county chairman and Greer critic from Pasco County, north of Tampa, says the insurrection is less about ideology than party politics. County committeemen felt they were being ignored.
"These are the people that organize the bases in their counties," Bunting says. "[They] do the mailings; stuff the envelopes; call the precinct people, the phone banks; open up more offices at election time. And what you were doing is — you were taking away their right."
Bunting and other Republicans in Florida are hoping the party can quickly unify behind a new chairman. But even after a new chairman is chosen, the split in Florida's Republican Party will remain.
Neck And Neck
It's on full display in the high-profile Senate race pitting Crist against Rubio.
In recent months, what had been seen as a long-shot bid by Rubio has now turned into a competitive race. Rubio has closed the gap and one poll shows him tied with Crist.
A return to stability in party leadership will help Crist by putting a nagging problem behind him. But Dinerstein, the Palm Beach County GOP chairman, says he believes Crist's problems are much bigger than who's running the state party.
"Charlie has refused to debate Marco Rubio and yet the national issues are at the top of everybody's agenda," Dinerstein says. "We need these people in the same room talking to the voters of this state about health care and cap-and-trade and amnesty and all the issues."
Up to now, Crist has campaigned on his record as governor and has mostly declined to appear with Rubio in candidate forums. If the race remains competitive, that will probably change.
Meanwhile, Rubio's momentum looks likely to continue, at least through next month, when he has been invited to appear on a high-profile platform — as the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.