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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Mysterious outside groups aim to block Trump's Florida co-chairman from winning seat in Legislature



Mysterious outside political groups are making a last minute push to block one of Rick Scott’s and Donald Trump’s most loyal Florida allies from winning a seat in the Florida Legislature.

Sarasota Republican Joe Gruters said he expected to take tough shots from his Republican opponent Steve Vernon in House District 73. It’s the nature of politics, said Gruters, an early backer of Scott in 2010 and Trump’s Florida co-chairman. But what he didn’t expect was that outside special interest groups would fund attack mailers against him given that Vernon, a long time Tea Party activists, has repeatedly tried to argue that Gruters is the one benefiting from special interests.

Over the last two days, mailers from a group calling themselves Stop Benefits to Illegals NOW!, have poured into Manatee County accusing Gruters of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from “special interest groups.” Another slams him for living in “liberal Sarasota County” - a longtime Republican stronghold that has not voted for a Democrat for president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The district the two are battling for includes both Manatee and Sarasota counties, though the bulk of the district is in Manatee.

Florida Division of Elections records show that Stop Benefits to Illegals NOW! was created on July 25 by Carlie Knight, who lists her address in Cape Coral at an executive office suite rental company that also leases out mailbox addresses.

Attempts to reach Knight and Stop Benefits to Illegals NOW! were unsuccessful.

More than half the of the $40,000 that group has raised comes from a political action committee calling itself Leadership for Florida’s Future. That group in turn reports collecting 85 percent of its money in August so far from one group called Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy, which collects donations from dozens of groups. How much Stop Benefits to Illegals NOW! has spent on mail pieces won't likely be known until after Tuesday's election when it will have to next report its spending.

Gruters said the “dark money” that is nearly impossible to trace shows Vernon is a “hypocrite” and is the one who is really in bed with special interest connections who are directing the mail pieces. Vernon has fired back at Gruters on Facebook, calling Gruters a “bold face liar.”

It’s become one of the most contentious Republican primary races in the state.

[Last modified: Friday, August 26, 2016 6:03pm]


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