Day Will Challenge Thrasher for State GOP’s Top Post
A full-blown leadership fight emerged as Florida Republicans gathered here Saturday, trying to shift their focus toward raising more than $40 million for the pivotal election year ahead.
The state party’s annual meeting came just days after Jim Greer, Gov. Charlie Crist’s hand-picked chairman, announced he was stepping down Feb. 20, after months of criticism over spending and his leadership style.
But who succeeds him in an election slated for that day became mired in doubt – with Broward County State Committeewoman Sharon Day capping Saturday’s meeting by openly challenging Sen. John Thrasher, the St. Augustine Republican who surfaced as the choice of most elected officials and fundraisers.
“We will move forward, will build a team together,” Day told the 300 party leaders, adding, ““We will choose our destiny together and with that I have chosen to run.”
Day drew a standing ovation from about one-quarter of those gathered. But Day’s move dashed the push by party elected officials and, perhaps most importantly, some of the party’s biggest fundraisers, to make Thrasher the consensus pick.
Instead, the scene is set for a month of potentially combative jockeying within the party – with a split clearly emerging within the party between the volunteer activists who comprise the bulk of the Republican Executive Committee and the elected officials and money-raisers who tapped Thrasher.
“This will work out,” Thrasher said after Day announced her candidacy. “I can see why some
people think I’ve been anointed – but it’s not true. This is going to be real retail campaigning, one-on-one meeting with people, to see who is the choice to lead this party.”
Day and Thrasher had huddled briefly Friday in what both sides said was a good talk. But Thrasher acknowledged Day wasn’t ready to bow out of the race – despite him drawing a steady stream of public support from Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum, House and Senate leaders, and fundraisers.
Day said she wanted to give party leaders of choice of “one of their own” to run the party for the remaining year of Greer’s term.
It’s clear, though, the chairman’s race may divert attention from what was to be Thrasher’s focus leading up to the Feb. 20 chairman’s election -- raising cash. The $40 million target for the election year ahead is a dramatic upgrade from what many party leaders say was a lackluster 2009.
The Florida Republican Party raised about $13 million last year, below the $15 million it raised in the year leading up to the 2008 election. The closing weeks of last year also was marked by a dozen prominent fund-raisers issuing a public letter saying they refused to raise any more cash for the party until Greer stepped down as chairman.
While the party raised $4.5 million in the last three months of 2009, Greer’s departure stemmed in part from what internal party documents suggest is a $4 million operating deficit – driven by overspending on travel, consultants and other expenses.
Florida Republican Party Treasurer Joel Pate, however, repeated Saturday the Greer administration’s claim that the GOP has $1.5 million cash-on-hand. The treasurer’s report, however, prompted stiff questioning and criticism from several party leaders Saturday even though Pate insisted, “All expenditures have been legal, proper and in the best interest of the party.”
For his part, Thrasher conceded the party’s fund-raising task is daunting.
“I just about choked when I heard the kind of money we were looking to raise,” Thrasher said. “But it’s what we need to collect for a big year ahead. We can do it. We’ve already started raising it.”
Thrasher who was the beneficiary of big fund-raising push by Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, in his special election victory last fall, is seen by many party leaders as a prodigious fund-raiser with longtime political ties to some of the party’s deepest pockets.
“I’ve been out there now the last several months, and I know what it takes to elect Republicans,” Thrasher said.
Day, though, also said insisted that she was no fund-raising slouch, and the longtime activist could draw on many of the same donors Thrasher appeals to.
“People who know me know that nobody will fight harder,” Day said. “I think at the end of the day, to have an opportunity to have one of our own be chairman – I’m willing to step up. It’s not a negative.”
With Day bucking the party establishment in challenging Thrasher, it is likely she could draw support from what is emerging as a kind of maverick wing within the state GOP.
While Crist and McCollum support Thrasher, their Republican primary rivals in the U.S. Senate and governor’s race, supporters of former House Speaker Marco Rubio and Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, may provide the base for Day’s candidacy.
“I think this is going to be a very close race,” said Bill Bunting, a Pasco County state committeeman who was among those calling for Greer to step aside. “A lot of Rubio’s people will certainly line up behind her.”
The looming leadership contest may have left hollow calls from several speakers Saturday that the party needed to put recent divisions behind it and race forward into the election season.
Crist was among those calling for renewed party unity.
“We’re a unit, we’re a team,” Crist told the crowd. “And we have one fight. You look at what the Democrats are doing across the country – they’re dropping like flies. We have to seize the opportunity.”