You'd think Florida Republicans would be a huggy and happy bunch these days, having just swept November's elections.
But the unpredictable five-person campaign for Republican state party chairman that culminates Saturday is anything but amiable.
On Wednesday alone:
• Someone sent an anonymous e-mail that appeared to come from Mothers Against Drunk Driving attacking Hillsborough GOP chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush for having been arrested on drunken driving charges in 2004. The executive director for Florida MADD stressed to the Times/Herald that the organization had nothing to do with the e-mail and that it had no position on the GOP race.
• Cox-Roush released a statement saying she might pursue the unknown e-mailer for slander and libel. She and fellow front-runner David Bitner of Monticello also signed a joint statement denouncing the "reprehensible" e-mail.
• An anonymous e-mail attacked Palm Beach County's Sid Dinerstein as a ruthless and lousy county chairman who also happens to look "like a Xerox repairman with a clown tie."
• A controversial Republican consultant in Orlando, Doug Gutzloe, sent out his own e-mail denouncing Pinellas state committeeman Tony DiMatteo for having served on the party grievance committee where he led a "Nazi-like purge" of party activists who raised questions about former state party chairman Jim Greer.
Imagine how grumpy these Republicans would be if they'd lost in November.
"We thought the governor's race was bad. Look at the (party) chair race," state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said of the negativity.
Even before this week, opponents spread details of Cox-Roush's old drunken driving arrest as well as her past bankruptcy filing and other financial problems.
Bitner, meanwhile, last week had to explain why his wife once accused him of domestic violence. Soon after the Times/Herald asked him about the court records, Bitner released a pre-made video of he and his wife rebutting the allegations.
"There is no place for personal attacks in this election, and those responsible are engaging in actions beneath all that the Republican Party symbolizes and represents," Bitner and Cox-Roush said Wednesday in a joint statement.
On Saturday, about 200 party activists and elected officials will gather at Disney World to elect a new chairman to a two-year term. By most accounts, the five-person race looks like a neck-and-neck contest between Cox-Roush and Bitner, a former legislator and lobbyist living outside Tallahassee. But all five candidates have bases of support, and party races can be thoroughly unpredictable.
"The one thing I know about these elections is the level of lying about who people say they're voting for is beyond belief," said David Johnson, a former executive director of the state party.
The election will likely take two ballots. More than 200 eligible participants vote on all five candidates, and then vote again, choosing between the top two.
That means some or all of the underdog candidates — including DiMatteo, Dinerstein and Joe Gruters of Sarasota — could be kingmakers if they can deliver their supporters to one of the top two vote getters.
Six months ago, the mighty Republican Party of Florida was working to end the political ambitions of gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, who had challenged the party's anointed gubernatorial candidate, Bill McCollum.
Scott won that battle, and the new governor now is aiming to ensure that the Florida GOP becomes part of his political machine. It's a tricky balancing act: Should he risk overtly backing a candidate who might lose, or should he stay neutral?
So far the governor is staying neutral, even as he and his political team carefully monitor the field. He named 10 loyalists to the state party's executive committee this week who presumably will vote for Scott's choice.
Adding to the uncertainty are all the negative attacks. Many Republicans think they may be doing at least as much to help the targets of criticism.
"The impact has been to sway sentiment to those who were attacked," said Duval state committeewoman Cindy Graves, who hasn't taken sides. "I believe it's backfired."
The stakes are particularly high, as the next party chairman will have to juggle a presidential campaign (including a presidential debate planned for later this year), a potentially divisive Senate primary, and drawing new congressional and legislative districts. And he or she will have an unusually high profile with the 2012 GOP convention in Tampa.
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at [email protected]