The Republican Party of Florida's struggle to raise money is becoming a key issue in the race to see who will lead the party over the next two years.
In the four previous presidential election years dating back to 2000, the RPOF raised on average $24.6 million to do battle. But this year, the RPOF is expected to barely have cleared $10 million when new campaign finance reports are released later this month tallying up spending in 2016.
"It's one of the top questions I get everywhere I go," said Sarasota Republican Christian Ziegler, who is challenging current RPOF chairman Blaise Ingoglia for re-election in a Jan. 14 race. "What happened to our fundraising? The organization is hurting financially."
Ingoglia says focusing on the fundraising is foolish when it's clear the GOP cleaned up in November with dominating wins for Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and maintaining dominating margins in the Florida Legislature.
"Isn't this what we should want out of government: spending less money and getting better outcomes?" asked Ingoglia, who is also a state representative from Hernando County. "Christian should be applauding it."
Ingoglia said he has cut overhead and the party was ripe for financial re-tooling.
But Ziegler, who knows that he's the underdog in the race, said the energy around the presidential race and local party efforts helped overcome the lack of RPOF help. He said in 2018, when the next governor's race is up, Republicans are going to need a more unified party that can raise money. He has promised GOP activists to reunify the party after two years of Ingoglia. When Ingoglia won the chairmanship two years ago, he did so over Gov. Rick Scott's choice for party leader. Scott responded by pulling his fundraising from the RPOF and the Florida Senate Republicans did the same.
"We need the resources to be as strong as possible going into 2018," Ziegler said.
Besides Ingoglia and Ziegler, Lafayette County Republican state committeeman Alan Levy is also in the race.
Dems battle too
The drama of the race to lead the Florida Democratic Party will travel to left-leaning Broward County when the candidates convene at a forum in Pompano Beach on Jan. 11.
Wealthy donor/developer Stephen Bittel, Hillsborough County activist Alan Clendenin, former state Sen. Dwight Bullard, Duval County's Lisa King and Osceola Democratic chair Leah Carius have all confirmed that they will attend, said Tim Canova, one of the organizers.
The forum gives Democratic activists in Broward — the county with the highest number of registered Democrats — a chance to hear how the candidates hope to reinvigorate the party after its crushing defeat in November.
The opinion of only two Democrats in Broward matter: state committeeman Ken Evans and committeewoman Grace Carrington, who get a powerful vote in the chair election in Orlando on Jan. 14.
Evans said he hasn't decided who he will vote for, but said he will base his decision on who Broward Democrats coalesce around. Carrington said in a text to the Miami Herald, "I'm not making my decision until 10 minutes before the vote."
Votes are weighted based on the number of registered Democrats in each county, which means that Broward and Miami-Dade get a major say in the election to replace party chair Allison Tant.
The race for Florida Democratic Party chair has been full of drama. Weeks ago, it appeared that Bittel, a wealthy donor and Coconut Grove developer, was the frontrunner when other key candidates failed to become eligible in their own counties. In Miami-Dade, Bret Berlin won a state committeeman seat and then quickly resigned to make way for Bittel to run for the post, a prerequisite to running statewide. Bittel beat Bullard 250-161.
It appeared that Bullard had given up — he didn't show up for his own election because he was on a family cruise. But then he revived his bid by moving to Gadsden County, a small rural county in northern Florida, where he won a state committeeman spot Tuesday.
Bullard was the second candidate to move to keep his candidacy alive: After Clendenin lost in Hillsborough County, he moved into a rented trailer in Bradford County and won a similar position there.
An Orlando real estate professional has his eyes on being Florida's next elected state agriculture commissioner.
Republican Paul Paulson filed papers with the Florida Division of Elections to run to replace current commissioner Adam Putnam, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits.
Paulson has never run for statewide office, but in 2015 ran for mayor of Orlando, losing 63 percent to 33 percent to incumbent Buddy Dyer. He currently is a Republican state committeeman for the Orange County Republican Executive Committee.
Miami Herald reporter Amy Sherman contributed to this report.