LAKE BUENA VISTA — The vicious fliers are gone, the civil war over.
The Republican Party of Florida on Saturday elected a new chairman — former legislator and lobbyist David Bitner — after one of the nastiest contests the party has ever seen.
"It starts now. We are taking our country back. Folks, there is unity here," Bitner, 62, said to more than 200 Republican officials and activists as the GOP executive committee gathered at Disney World for the party's annual meeting.
Bitner, whose four competitors included Hillsborough Republican chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush and Pinellas state committeeman Tony DiMatteo, won the $115,000 job after a runoff election where he received 158 votes to 74 for Cox-Roush.
Capping a tumultuous period for the GOP in America's biggest battleground state, the election came months after the ouster and arrest of former state party chairman Jim Greer for allegedly stealing party funds.
"The problems of the past are behind us," declared Gov. Rick Scott, who was officially neutral, although his 10 appointees to the party executive committee united behind Bitner.
The party election was an ugly one, bringing out some of the worst in party activists, bloggers and shadowy consultants.
Anonymous e-mails and mailings attacked Cox-Roush for an old drunken-driving arrest, bankruptcy and financial problems. Bitner had to defend himself against revelations that his wife in 1997 filed, and withdrew, a domestic violence complaint against him.
All that mudslinging is over now, said Bitner. Now Republicans want to turn their energy and aggressiveness toward unseating Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012 and delivering Florida's 27 electoral votes to President Barack Obama's Republican challenger.
"This is one big family," said Bitner, who lives in Monticello near Tallahassee but used to represent Charlotte County in the state House. "We'll all pull the rope in the same direction. We have 657 days until we take this country back."
Bitner succeeds state Sen. John Thrasher, another former lobbyist, who stepped in as party chairman last year after the ouster of Greer. Despite turmoil, bitter internal feuding and upheaval, Republicans swept Florida elections in November, thanks to the Republican wave across the country.
Still, Bitner faces some major challenges in his two-year term: Congressional and legislative lines will be redrawn, always a dicey process; a potentially divisive U.S. Senate primary; a looming showdown with the national GOP as Florida looks to buck the rules and schedule an early presidential primary in 2012 and stage a presidential debate in October. He also will have to rebuild the trust of the party's small donors, who stopped giving amid revelations of lavish spending by legislative leaders and party officials.
What's more, Democrats still have a 600,000 voter edge, and Obama has already shown the capacity to build a juggernaut campaign. It's unlikely that Democrats will stay home in droves during Obama's re-election, as they did in November when Republicans won the Governor's Office, all the Cabinet seats, a veto-proof majority in the Legislature and four more seats in Congress.
"Obama will be the head of the ticket," said DiMatteo. "We're going to have turnout problems."
Because some suspected DiMatteo of ties to negative attacks in the chairman's race, he received only seven votes in the first round of voting. Bitner received 109 votes in that round, just shy of the 115 needed to win, while Cox-Roush received 58, Sarasota Republican chairman Joe Gruters received 37, and Palm Beach county chairman Sid Dinerstein received 16.
The shadow of Greer loomed over the election, with promises of more accountability and less dictating to local parties.
Greer provoked a grass roots backlash last year when he tried to throw the party's resources behind Gov. Charlie Crist and muscle Marco Rubio out of the Senate primary, and all the candidates promised not to meddle in GOP primaries.
Bitner, who gave up his lobbying clients in December to concentrate on the election, said he will urge lawmakers to do away with a law passed in the Greer era giving the party chairman sweeping authority to remove elected members of local Republican executive committees.
In addition to chairman Bitner, Republicans elected Duval County GOP chairman Lenny Curry as vice chairman, Manatee County chairwoman Kathy King secretary, Leon County chairman Jeff Howell treasurer, Taylor County state committeeman Daryll Gunter assistant secretary and Hernando County chairman Blaise Ingoglia assistant treasurer.
Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com, and Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.