It was only six years ago that Hillsborough County Republicans scored Jeb Bush to headline their Lincoln Day fundraiser.
Republicans from across the region packed a glitzy ballroom to hear from the presidential hopeful. Tom Pepin, the local beer distributor, paid $10,000 to sit next to Bush, recalled Art Wood, the chairman of the dinner. To the crowd’s delight, Bush announced that his statewide campaign would be based in Tampa, a nod to the county’s longstanding influence.
“It was one of the best Lincoln Day Dinners ever in state history,” Wood said.
Tonight, during the latest Lincoln Day fundraiser in Hillsborough, local Republicans will welcome U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a brash newcomer from Georgia who lost her committee assignments in Congress after suggesting the Parkland high school shooting was staged.
Greene’s very presence in Hillsborough County is the latest demonstration of how much the local party has changed.
A generation ago, Hillsborough County was a Republican success story. Voters here swung the state — and the country — for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Republicans maintained a vice grip on the county commission and constitutional offices even as Tampa grew into a thriving blue city. Party officials lured the Republican National Convention to Tampa and got Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to headline the 2012 Lincoln Day Dinner.
Democrats now control the county commission and most constitutional offices. Once a bellwether for the nation, Hillsborough has voted blue in four consecutive presidential elections.
Recent setbacks at the ballot box have generated growing dissent among Hillsborough Republican operatives and officials who don’t believe the local party’s leadership is focused enough on registering voters and getting local candidates elected.
“If you were to poll a majority of my colleagues, most would say we really wish the Hillsborough GOP apparatus was more organized and had a more familial feel,” said Rep. Lawrence McClure, a Plant City Republican.
The party lately has been defined by loyalty to former President Donald Trump and bringing in Greene, a staunch defender of the former president, is a continuation of that. Since Trump’s departure from office, the party and its leader, executive committee chairman Jim Waurishuk, have amplified conspiracies that allege the 2020 election was stolen.
Waurishuk regularly has Facebook posts censored for false or misleading content and he maintains, despite evidence to the contrary, that the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was carried out by leftist groups. Elected Republicans have called for Waurishuk to step down over his incendiary social media presence.
Local Republican operatives and fundraisers have formed a splinter party, the Hillsborough Leadership Council, to recruit and raise money for local candidates.
“This leadership is the worst I have ever seen in my years being involved with the Republican Party,” said Hung Mai, one of those fundraisers. “It’s an embarrassment.”
Waurishuk has dismissed such criticism. His efforts are popular among the Trump faithful and have helped grow the local party’s online reach. The Facebook page for the Hillsborough County Republican Party has more followers than its counterparts around the state.
But party participation is down. The number of precinct captains — the elected operatives who make up the rank and file of the local party — fell by nearly half in the last decade. Fundraising has declined, from $547,000 raised during the 2012 election cycle to $133,000 in the most recent one ending in 2020.
Elsewhere in Florida, Republicans closed a longstanding voter registration gap with Democrats. From 2016 to 2020, Hillsborough Democrats registered more voters than Republicans.
Those Democratic gains have been helped by intense growth in the county, especially in downtown Tampa and the suburbs. The new arrivals tend to be younger. Many are Latino.
“The demographics have clearly changed against us,” said Wood, a former party chairman. “We need to be working on voter registration to pull people into the Republican Party.”
Waurishuk said in a text message to the Tampa Bay Times that the party is “working our strategy and have already been well engaged for the 2022 Mid-term / Gubernatorial Elections.”
In a recent letter to party members, Waurishuk vowed success in 2022 and called on Republicans to get more involved.
“Let the next 15 months be something to tell your grandchildren about,” he wrote.
The local party places some blame for its struggles on others. This week, it shared on social media a video alleging voter fraud in Hillsborough County and demanded an audit of Florida’s 2020 election — which Trump won by unexpectedly wide margin of 3.3 points. The posts criticized the state official who oversees elections: Secretary of State Laurel Lee, an appointee of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the wife of a past Hillsborough GOP chairman, former Florida Senate President Tom Lee.
Tapping Greene as tonight’s speaker is alienating some Republicans who question why the local party would give a freshman lawmaker from a neighboring state a platform instead of a homegrown Republican.
Nearby Pasco County’s Republican Party, meanwhile, nabbed Gov. Ron DeSantis for its upcoming September fundraiser. That event is expected to be one of the biggest local party fundraisers in state history with more than 1,000 attendees, said Shawn Foster, a state committeeman for Pasco County.
“I’ve talked to Republicans who aren’t happy with (Greene) and aren’t going,” said former County Commissioner Sandy Murman.
Greene gained notoriety as a candidate in 2020 after videos emerged of her expressing racist views and for her devotion to the QAnon conspiracy. Since Hillsborough Republicans named Greene their keynote speaker, she has held events in support of the rioters arrested for storming the U.S. Capitol and was suspended from Twitter for falsely claiming that coronavirus vaccines do not work.
Tom Gaitens, one of Hillsborough’s state committeeman to the Republican Party, said he believes Greene will fire up many local Republicans. The event sold out this week, the party announced.
“Is she going to energize the moderates? Probably not,” Gaitens said. “You’re not going to please everybody all the time.”