Encouraged by right-wing political figures including Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, political activists often calling themselves “America First” adherents have been seeking to take over leadership of county Republican Party chapters in Florida in elections this month.
But they have failed in several Tampa Bay area counties.
Flynn, a retired Army general and former Trump national security adviser, convicted of lying to the FBI and pardoned by Trump, now lives in Sarasota, leads a Christian nationalist movement and has become involved in local politics.
He and former Trump political strategist Bannon have advocated taking over the Republican Party from the grass-roots level — precinct representatives and the county party officials they elect, the bottom rung of party leadership ladder.
In Citrus, Pinellas and Sarasota counties, veteran GOP leaders have held off challengers linked to the movement in races for county chairperson position.
Challengers have won elsewhere including Collier County and Lake County, where firebrand former state Rep. Anthony Sabatini defeated an incumbent.
In Hillsborough, party chairperson Jim Waurishuk, a Donald Trump supporter known for inflammatory social media posts, didn’t seek re-election. That followed months of turmoil in the party, including grievances filed against him with the state party and intervention from state party Chairman Joe Gruters.
Dana Galen of Valencia Lakes, head of a south Hillsborough conservative club who won the race to succeed him, declined to identify herself with one side or the other. In some of her campaign material, she promised changes that seemed to distance her from Waurishuk’s leadership.
She said Waurishuk didn’t take sides in the race, although he sent out a text message after her slate of candidates all won praising what he called a conservative “sweep.”
In the Pinellas chairman’s race, vice chairperson Adam Ross defeated Cathi Chamberlain, a proponent of election fraud theories who said she led the state House campaign of Jeremy Brown, a Jan. 6 defendant who ran unsuccessfully from a jail cell. Candidates on the “America First” slate for two other offices also lost, Ross said.
“We have a long tradition of professional leadership” in the Pinellas GOP, Ross said. “That’s what I’m going to be — everybody will be welcome but it will be professional. I expect us not to use terms like RINO,” an insult meaning “Republican in name only.”
In Sarasota County, Jack Brill defeated Flynn ally Conni Bruni for party chairperson.
In Citrus, chairperson Mike Moberley held off a challenge from another Brown supporter and America First candidate, Stephen Mecler.
Moberley said he was a 2016 Trump Electoral College delegate and 2020 supporter, but wants to “look in the windshield, not the rearview mirror.”
“It’s the same thing happening throughout Florida and much of the U.S.” he said of the local party races. The America First candidates “have been encouraged by Steve Bannon and others to seek leadership in local parties. Many have not been previously involved.”
He said the America First-style activists “can be of help to the party because they’re full of energy and willing to roll up their sleeves and work,” but sometimes focus more on policy than local electioneering, the traditional job of local party organizations.