The Florida Republican Party that Charlie Crist used to control now is maneuvering to cut him off at the knees as he ponders dropping out of the GOP Senate primary and running instead as an independent candidate.
In a memo sent to party officials Thursday, the state party's general counsel decreed that because party officials — from local precinct captains to national committee members to legislators — signed an oath to support Republicans, they would be obligated to oppose Crist's unaffiliated campaign and ask for any donations to be refunded.
"Any member who fails to formally revoke his or her public support and request the return of any contributions made to a candidate running against the candidate of the Republican Party would be in violation of the RPOF Rules and would be subject to removal from party office and membership on Republican executive committees," said the memo from Jason Gonzalez, who used to be general counsel of Gov. Crist and ousted chairman Jim Greer.
Crist, who has one more week to decide whether he's running for office as a Republican, called the memo "premature."
Just as many activists fumed when Greer tried to invoke an arcane rule to put all the party's muscle behind Crist, rather than Marco Rubio, Thursday's loyalty oath memo drew sharp reaction.
"How dare anyone at the state party tell us who we can and cannot support," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a staunch Crist supporter. "This is a dangerous message the party establishment is sending to Florida voters. It's because of this type of bullying and threatening tactics that encouraged so many Floridians to distance themselves from the two parties. I was walking precincts and making phone calls as a volunteer for Republican candidates when leaders of today's GOP establishment were registered Democrats."
Pasco state committeeman Bill Bunting, a Rubio supporter, blasted Fasano for criticizing the party's move. "His behavior is out of control. I don't know what the hell's the matter with him," Bunting said, calling the memo "absolutely a good idea."
The Florida Democratic Party also requires loyalty oaths, but its bylaws are less stringent than the Republicans'.
Ironically, former GOP chairman Greer was blasted by critics for changing the party's loyalty-oath rules to make it easier to disqualify candidates for party office and for trying to muscle Rubio out of the primary.
"Hypocrisy at its greatest," Greer called the loyalty-oath memo in an e-mail Thursday. "This and other recent actions by the current RPOF leadership demonstrates as many have suspected that the Party leadership is biased and is violating the very principles of neutrality that they accused others of doing."
The state GOP's board is scheduled to meet behind closed doors today in Tallahassee to discuss, among other things, an ongoing scandal about how party leaders used their party credit cards.
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.