TALLAHASSEE — When President Donald Trump made a visit to The Villages retirement community in central Florida on Thursday, he called out, by name, each state Republican leader and member of Florida's Congressional delegation who was there in the audience.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the first lady, Casey, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, Attorney General Ashley Moody and a handful of congressmen were all there, either seated onstage behind the president or in the audience, where he could point them out to the crowd.
But there was also a notable absence: Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and state senator from Sarasota.
Gruters has been a regular attendee of Trump events, and photos posted on social media have shown Trump and Gruters mingling backstage of at least one rally in May at Panama City Beach.
The GOP chairman said he had a prior commitment to tour two state prisons, Desoto and Charlotte Correctional Institutions, with Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, as part of their work on the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. Gruters said he asked Brandes "a while back" to accompany him on a prison tour, because Gruters wanted to see in person some of the pressing issues facing Florida's prisons, including critical under-staffing and a dramatic lack of educational programs.
"It was an eye-opening experience," Gruters said. "The panic button should be pressed ... we're ultimately responsible for the funding they need and we need to do a better job."
But Gruters’ absence has fueled speculation that his relationship with DeSantis may be on shaky ground. DeSantis recently endorsed cutting Gruters’ salary as the chair of the state GOP in half in order to boost the pay of the party’s new executive director, Peter O’Rourke, according to Politico.
The former executive director, Jennifer Locetta, was fired as part of a massive shakeup in the Florida Republican world, which included the ouster of DeSantis’ former campaign manager, Susie Wiles, from her political job with DeSantis as well as with Trump’s Florida campaign team.
Although U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who was independently wealthy from his years as a hospital executive, didn’t use the state Republican Party apparatus for political fundraising, DeSantis has changed that practice as governor. The state GOP has thus become all the more important as it works as DeSantis’ political machine in addition to its role supporting other Republican candidates, including Trump himself, all over the state.
Gruters on Friday pushed back on what he called a false narrative, saying the problems that spurred the past personnel changes are in the past.
“Were there some issues at the beginning? Maybe, yes,” he told the Times/Herald. “But we’ve dealt with those issues and we’re moving on as a team.”
Gruters also contended that the notion of a rift within party leaders was being pushed by people with ulterior motives.
“Listen, people want to be chairman. This is a game of politics, and there’s some people that may benefit from trying to put a wedge between the governor and I, and the president and I," he said. "But there’s no wedge. We’re together.”