Florida's mighty Republican Party is in a state of uncertainty after the giant upset victory Saturday of a charismatic new party chairman who immediately signaled he won't be just another rubber stamp for elected Republicans in Tallahassee.
One of the first things state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia did after his election as Republican Party of Florida chairman was to restrict access to state party headquarters in Tallahassee, order no removal or transfer of documents and bar any financial transactions without his authorization. Treating the party's "George Bush Republican Center" like a potential crime scene does not exactly signal status quo.
But Ingoglia's other early announcement was all about reassuring the insider crowd they have nothing to fear from a new regime. He named widely respected Republican consultants David Johnson (party executive director under the late and legendary chairman Tom Slade) and Pablo Diaz (former state party operative, Jeb Bush aide and Pam Bondi campaign manager) to lead his transition team.
"Having two people like that sends the message we are very serious about building this party better than it ever has been before," Ingoglia said in a phone interview Monday.
Three days after he defeated Leslie Dougher — Gov. Rick Scott's choice to lead the party — Ingoglia said the governor had not reached out to him, but he had nothing but accolades for Scott.
"The governor has a state to run. His primary focus is to continue doing the great job he's doing," Ingoglia said. "The party will be united. We're going to extend the olive branch to everybody."
Ingoglia, 44, was vice chairman of the state GOP when he was passed over for chairman last spring. Gov. Scott tapped Dougher to succeed Lenny Curry, who stepped down to run for mayor of Jacksonville. A former tournament poker player and former motivational speaker, Ingoglia brings a showman's style and personal understanding of social media that other recent party leaders have lacked (he's @GovGoneWild on Twitter).
Freezing access to the party headquarters and its records was a cautionary move based on warnings by Dougher allies that Scott would stop raising money for the state GOP and move most party functions to an independent committee if Dougher was not re-elected chairman. The Florida Senate's political operation yanked $800,000 out of the state party as soon as Ingoglia won.
Ingoglia said he will review all current party staffers and all current contracts with consultants as part of his restructuring. His main goal is to empower the grass roots and deliver Florida's 29 electoral votes to the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.
"We have to do a much better job of training our local party leaders at the local level and give them the tools that we need," he said, suggesting that experts would likely be brought in to quarterly GOP meetings to help local party leaders with marketing and micro-targeting.
A New York City native, Ingoglia jumped into the spotlight of Tampa Bay politics in 2007 with "Government Gone Wild" seminars that attacked spending by Hernando County government and later by the federal government. He spent his own money to help unseat Democrats Diane Rowden and Chris Kingsley from the Hernando County Commission, and was elected Hernando GOP chairman in 2009. A home builder who targeted out-of-town speculators, Ingoglia lists his net worth at nearly $3.8 million.
He dismissed speculation that he could not effectively serve as both state GOP party chairman and a legislator at the same time. Former state Sen. John Thrasher did both jobs after succeeding ousted party chairman Jim Greer in 2010.
"I will do both and do both well," he said, shortly after attending a Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony in his district.
Tom Hogan, a Hernando County Republican state committee member who has been active in Florida GOP politics for 48 years, said the governor and other elected Republicans have nothing to fear from Ingoglia.
"He's a party guy. He'll support our candidates and our (elected leaders)," Hogan said. "Blaise is very smart, he's very energetic, and he knows how to campaign. He'll probably shake things up, but just in the sense that it won't be status quo. I have complete confidence in him."
One underlying question with the Florida GOP chairman's race is how it might affect the Republican presidential primary. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are the favorite sons of most party regulars, but Scott constantly praises Texas Gov. Rick Perry, shares a senior campaign adviser with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and campaigned for re-election frequently with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Like most members of the state party's executive committee, Ingoglia is widely seen as a Bush backer, but he stressed Monday that the party would be completely neutral during the presidential primary.
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.