ORLANDO — Florida Republicans overwhelmingly re-elected Jim Greer to another term as state party chairman Saturday, in an election that served partly as a referendum on the GOP leadership's focus on moderation and inclusion.
"We need to be a party that welcomes everyone, and our chairman understands that," Gov. Charlie Crist said in nominating Greer before about 300 activists gathered for party's annual meeting in Orlando. "We are in the business of gaining majorities. We are in the business that determines and demands inclusion."
After an election where Barack Obama won Florida's 27 electoral votes, and Democrats netted an additional congressional seat, Greer was still able to tout the party's success in holding back the Democratic wave across the country.
Still, the party controlling the state executive and legislative branches faces significant challenges ahead, with Democrats expanding their voter registration advantage in recent years and outperforming Republicans among Florida's diverse and fast-growing Hispanic population.
"I believe, as many of you, that engaging Hispanic and African-American voters is the future of the Republican Party, and as such we must put the resources in this area without reservation or hesitation," said Greer.
He also vowed to immediately begin an aggressive voter registration program, to enhance the party's online fundraising and communication and to reach out more to young voters.
Greer, 46, won 77 percent of the vote Saturday, despite grumbling among party activists about his spending and leadership style and a blizzard of nasty, anonymous e-mails blasting his leadership. But with every top elected Republican in the state endorsing Greer, the only challenger to emerge was Eric Miller, a little known Republican committeeman from Martin County, who criticized the state party's "top down" leadership and move toward the center under Crist and Greer.
"We want our party back," said Miller. "Now is not the time for us to move closer to the middle, doing so is a continuation of capitulation and fear. Now is the time to stand for our core beliefs and values, to stand tall as Republicans."
The final tally was 169 votes for Greer and 52 for Miller.
The GOP overwhelmingly dominates government in Florida, but it also faces serious challenges beyond the better organized and energized Florida Democratic Party that grew during the Obama campaign.
Heading into a cycle where Crist faces re-election and Republican Mel Martinez's seat is coming open, Republicans are in charge amid a financial crisis with no easy solutions and, lately, a brewing controversy over GOP House Speaker Ray Sansom funneling millions to a community college that hired him the day he became speaker.
"Greer can kick off his new term on the right foot by joining Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman and former Republican U.S. Rep Joe Scarborough in calling on embattled Speaker Ray Sansom to resign," said Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff.
Greer dismissed the shot, noting that Sansom had resigned days earlier from his community college post.
"The speaker has resolved the questions relating to the issue," Greer said, "and Floridians want him and all elected officials to focus on the issues of he day that are important to them — the economy, the budget and serving Floridians."
A former Oviedo City Council member little known to most party activists when Crist tapped him for party chairman two years ago, Greer in recent weeks had suggested he might run for Republican National Committee chairman. Instead, earlier this week he endorsed former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who would be the first African-American Republican national chairman.
Greer also named one of his top aides, Delmar Johnson, as the party's executive director, replacing Jim Rimes, who is returning to the private sector. Also, Harry Sargeant stepped down as finance chairman of the state party. He had been engulfed in controversy over Defense Department contracts and tens of thousands of dollars in suspicious campaign contributions that John McCain had to refund.
Greer has not yet named a replacement, but he hailed Sargeant's integrity and money-raising success.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.