TAMPA — Florida Republicans on Saturday chose a longtime grass roots activist to guide them through the 2014 elections, when their biggest challenge is securing Gov. Rick Scott's re-election.
Leslie Dougher, 50, a real estate agent from Middleburg and chairwoman of the Clay County GOP in suburban Jacksonville, will be the third woman to lead the Republican Party of Florida. She succeeds Lenny Curry, who resigned after 2 1/2 years to run for mayor of Jacksonville.
Dougher said Republicans cannot allow Scott to suffer the same fate in Florida that befell Mitt Romney, their 2012 presidential nominee.
"When President Obama won re-election, I was sick to my stomach," Dougher told activists in her first speech. "The best man did not win. I am not going to feel like that on Nov. 5."
Scott and other top elected officials rallied around the choice of Dougher (pronounced DO-er), making her election a formality.
"She's a grass roots person. She cares about the party," Scott said. "We're going to win all the statewide races this fall."
Cracks in Republican Party unity were evident, and Dougher's 106-69 victory was closer than expected because a dissident faction of activists refused to follow a script written by elected officials.
"I don't like top-down elections," said Bill Paterson, a retired New York City police supervisor and chairman of the St. Lucie County GOP. "It's turned the grass roots of the party to a position where they feel like they've been ignored and discounted."
Dougher defeated Eric Miller, a Republican state committeeman from Martin County and outspoken opponent of the Common Core educational standards that some conservatives see as a massive federal takeover of education. Miller was nominated by Patricia Sullivan, a Lake County state committeewoman and a leader of Central Florida's tea party movement.
Asked if Republicans are sufficiently enthusiastic about his re-election prospects, Scott said: "Oh, gosh. People are excited," and cited Florida's improving economy, creation of new jobs, and $500 million in tax and fee cuts.
Saturday's election was on the grounds of the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay in a big air-conditioned white tent encircled by a faux white picket fence.
Over breakfast before the vote, Republicans received a rousing and highly partisan pep talk from state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who's widely expected to run for governor in 2018.
Putnam directed his speech squarely at Scott's leading Democratic opponent, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.
"Even respectable Democrats have to laugh at this guy," Putnam said. "But he's dangerous, and we can't take this lightly."
Putnam said that if Crist wins, his law partner John Morgan will "control the state Supreme Court" and Hillary Clinton will have a "beachhead in the Governor's Mansion" in Florida going into the 2016 presidential election.
"Charlie Crist's cotton candy populism is not right for Florida," Putnam told the crowd. "The helium in his inaugural balloons lasts longer than his attention span."
Dougher's term as party chairwoman runs through January 2015. She's the fifth party chair in the past four years, and several activists cited the "turmoil" in 2010 when Crist's hand-picked chairman, Jim Greer, was forced to resign and went to prison after pleading guilty to stealing party money.
Speaking briefly with reporters, Dougher said her biggest goal is getting Scott re-elected, and she seemed puzzled by a question about why Scott is not more effective in connecting with voters. "I think he does great in front of the camera," Dougher said. "He's funny, he's entertaining, he's engaging."
Dougher is a native of Los Altos, Calif., is married with a 15-year-old daughter and works for the Coldwell Banker real estate firm. She moved to Florida in 1995, soon became active in precinct-level politics and ran for a Clay County School Board seat in 2006, losing in a Republican primary with 38 percent of the vote.
As head of a statewide group of county Republican Party chairmen, Dougher edits Red Hot Republicans, a newsletter on Twitter. Her biography says she was inspired by President Ronald Reagan to get involved in politics while she was a high school student in California.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.