TALLAHASSEE — Florida Republicans handed Gov. Rick Scott an embarrassing defeat Saturday by unseating his hand-picked state party chairwoman from office and replacing her with Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a freshman state legislator from Hernando County.
The decisive vote by the Republican Party of Florida's executive committee unceremoniously dethroned party chairwoman Leslie Dougher. Scott, who was re-elected in November and inaugurated two weeks ago, had personally lobbied committee members to vote for Dougher, but he couldn't seal her victory.
On the second ballot of what began as a four-candidate race, Ingoglia carried 132 votes to 90 for Dougher.
Ingoglia, a former state party vice chairman, led Dougher by one vote on the first ballot, 80 to 79, with 65 votes divided between former Rep. Kurt Kelly of Ocala and Eric Miller, a Martin County Republican state committeeman.
The announcement of Ingoglia's victory on the second ballot set off a round of applause that lasted for nearly 40 seconds. He said that despite their state successes, Republicans have to learn lessons from President Barack Obama's two Florida victories.
"We in the Republican Party do not need to change our message. We need to change the way we deliver that message," Ingoglia said. "We do not have a message problem. We have a marketing problem. The only thing holding this party back is us."
Ingoglia, 44, a Spring Hill home builder and tournament poker player, is known as an effective fundraiser and was elected to the state Legislature in November.
Dougher had the endorsement of many members of the GOP establishment, including Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando; House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island; five former chairs of the party; and Sharon Day, co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.
Dougher's loss capped off a particularly difficult week for Scott, who has faced questions in a separate controversy over the departure of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey. It also magnified questions about how quickly Scott's influence might wane in his second term.
In a meeting following Ingoglia's election, the party's executive director, Juston Johnson, told party officials he was resigning. It was expected that the Florida Senate would move its campaign money and staff out of party headquarters as senators were not likely to accept a situation in which they were forced to take direction from a House member.
Scott, who left the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando shortly after Dougher's defeat, issued a statement about the vote.
"Leslie did a great job as chairwoman," he said. "We had a successful election and that's why I voted for her. The delegates made another choice which is their prerogative."
Dougher's defeat came despite the fact that the Republican Party had a highly successful string of victories in November including Scott, all three Cabinet members and gains in the Florida House.
Dougher, a Clay County real estate agent, was trying to win a new two-year term. She took over the party in May when former chairman Lenny Curry left to begin a campaign for mayor of Jacksonville.
"I may have jumped on the proverbial speeding freight train in May, but I have no intentions of slowing down," Dougher said in her speech to committee members shortly before they voted her out of office.
Tensions and infighting between party activists and elected officials are common in both political parties, but Republicans said they could not recall a previous case in which a governor's choice for party leader was rejected by the rank-and-file.
The rejection of Scott's hand-picked choice for party leader is also likely to step up talk about Scott as a lame duck second-term governor whose influence is on the wane. And, his failure to deliver a victory for Dougher will be cast by critics of the governor as a sign of weakness.
"It certainly doesn't help his cause as he moves into his last four years," said Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a former GOP legislator and longtime party activist.
Fasano, who supported Scott's Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, even though he was appointed tax collector by Scott, said he was encouraged to see newly elected Republican lawmakers celebrating Scott's setback by sending congratulatory tweets to Ingoglia on their Twitter accounts.
"That's good," Fasano said. "That means they're not going to go along with whatever the governor wants."
Some Republicans brushed off the idea that the vote reflected negatively on Scott.
"The governor just won a great election, a historic election, a huge election," said Curry, who backed Dougher. "Look, we're strong as a party. This body, this membership, spoke today, and Blaise ran a great campaign."
Dougher also dismissed the speculation.
"I just think it's the grass roots making a choice of who they want to lead for 2016, and that's good," she said. "We're all united behind it, and we're going to go in 2016 and put a Republican president in office."
But when asked whether Scott might take a less active role in fundraising for the party given the vote, Dougher said: "I guess we'll see, won't we?"
Ingoglia expressed no doubts about being able to work with Scott on fundraising and other party issues. "The governor cares deeply about the direction of this nation and the party," he said.
Ingoglia also said he wouldn't try to use his chairmanship as leverage to help his legislative priorities.
"There is a firewall between what we do legislatively and what we do with the party," he said.
Times staff writer Dan DeWitt contributed to this report and information from The News Service of Florida and The Associated Press was used. Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.