ORLANDO — Florida Republicans will try to turn the page on their state party's embattled chairman and elect a new leader today, but the potentially divisive vote and lingering questions about party spending could make for more drama.
Both leading candidates for chairman — longtime party activist and Republican national committeewoman Sharon Day and state Sen. John Thrasher — voiced confidence they had the votes to win, but in a secret ballot with more than 250 eligible voters, anything can happen.
The once mighty and disciplined Florida GOP has been mired in infighting, financial scandal and suspicion for much of the year. It's unclear whether electing a new leader puts an end to the division, as the race to succeed Jim Greer to a large extent pits the Tallahassee establishment backing Thrasher against the longtime grass roots activists backing Day.
But both sides say their candidate represents change.
"This election is about the direction of the party," said Pinellas state committeeman Tony DiMatteo, a Day supporter. "If Thrasher wins, it shows most people are willing to go along with the insiders and the establishment. If Day wins, it shows we want to get all this (controversy) behind us and move on."
Thrasher spokeswoman Sarah Bascom noted that Day, not Thrasher, was an officer when alleged financial mismanagement was going on.
"Sen. Thrasher is not the old guard. Day is the old guard," Bascom said. "She's been the one at the party the entire time this has been going on. Sharon Day is the old party, Sen. Thrasher is the new party."
Friday night, Thrasher told party members gathered in Orlando that he has made good on his promise to bring $1 million to the party before today's vote. He is barred from raising money for the party during the upcoming 60-day lawmaking session.
Whoever wins will oversee fundraising and voter mobilization efforts in a particularly demanding midterm election where nearly every statewide office is wide open. And given that the party has been effectively shut down for six weeks since Greer announced his resignation, the GOP faces high expectations.
Greer resigned last month amid criticism that he had run party finances into the ground and meddled in the Republican primary for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat.
A passel of elected officials immediately threw their support behind Thrasher. Many grass roots Republican club and county party officers sided with Day, a longtime activist from Fort Lauderdale who worked her way up to secretary of the Republican National Committee.
Greer considered steering clear of today's vote, but said this week that he will preside over the secret ballot after all. It will be the first party function since a side deal was exposed that allowed the party's former executive director, Delmar Johnson, to be paid more than $400,000.
Just days later came revelations of secret negotiations between House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos with Greer over severance and legal protections that they say were never clinched. Vice chairman Allen Cox said he believes "the truth will be revealed" if and when Greer seeks to make good on the pact.
The revelations have fueled growing grass roots mistrust and resentment about the way top elected officials anointed Thrasher as the next chairman without bothering to consulting rank-and-file party officials.
"They're true believers, and they feel they've been betrayed by more than just a small degree. They don't know who to believe now," said former state party executive director David Johnson, saying that Thrasher is a down-to-earth, loyal Republican who can easily win over people who get to know him.
Also simmering is a touchy dispute over whether party credit card statements from top Republican politicians should be made public in the wake of questionable spending by Greer and Johnson. Both Day and Thrasher have promised audits, but expressed concerns about airing credit card records that show how campaign donations have been spent.
Senate President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach this week became the first elected official who had a credit card to agree to the release.
"I've gone back and looked at my own, and I wouldn't care who saw them," said Atwater, who is running to be Florida's next chief financial officer.
He said he used his card to gas up his minivan as he traveled the state in 2007 and 2008 to recruit and support Republican Senate candidates. "It might have been a hotel. It might have been a restaurant. So there's nothing that I'm the least bit concerned about."
Cannon, R-Winter Park, who was instrumental in ousting Greer as party chairman, declined to comment on how long he had use of a party credit card during his 2007 and 2008 runup to becoming speaker-designate, but said he favors a partial release of the credit card detail.
"I would support enhanced transparency and reporting requirements going forward, but a lot of that will depend on the election of the new (party) chairman," Cannon said.
Former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is challenging Gov. Charlie Crist in the Republican Senate primary, has said he doesn't object if all of the statements come out.
Crist said Friday that he'll attend today's meeting and expressed concern over the turmoil and allegations of lavish secret contracts.
"It is disconcerting to me. I don't know exactly what to make of it all. But what I've heard I don't like," he said.
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Becky Bowers contributed to this report.