LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA., Jan. 15, 2011 --
Former legislator Dave Bitner easily claimed a second-ballot victory Saturday to become Florida Republican Party chairman, ending a freewheeling, five-candidate contest to lead the party commanding the state’s top political offices.
With Gov. Rick Scott looking on, Bitner, the Jefferson County state committeeman, defeated Republican Party of Florida vice-chair Deborah Cox-Roush of Hillsborough County in a runoff. The pair emerged as leading vote-getters on a first-ballot featuring all five contenders.
“We are unified,” said Bitner, who called his four rivals to the stage at Walt Disney World’s Dolphin Hotel, after winning the runoff. “This is the group that will work for you. And we will deliver.”
Bitner, 62, who represented Charlotte County in the state House from 1992-2000, later becoming a lobbyist, was a late entry in the race to succeed outgoing chairman, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. Thrasher completed the final year of Jim Greer’s term, after the former chairman was ousted and later charged criminally for steering party funds to a company he controlled.
Cox-Roush had been seen as an early favorite of longtime party activists, but Bitner gained strength in the weeks leading up to Saturday morning’s vote – particularly among the 30 appointees of House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and Scott.
A Scott appointee, healthcare adviser Alan Levine, said the 10 voters added to the Republican Executive Committee for the new governor, had dinner together the night before. Levine said Bitner emerged as the favorite of the Scott group – although he stressed that the governor didn’t direct the decision-making.
“Bitner was the favorite,” Levine said. “He just seemed to impress the most people that he was the guy to direct the party going forward.”
The chairman had to win a majority of the 228 REC members present. Ballots were cast privately, but Bitner grabbed support from 109 voters on the first vote, with Cox-Roush a distant second, with 58 members backing her.
Other contenders were well back: Sarasota County Chairman Joe Gruters drew 37 votes, Palm Beach County Chairman Sid Dinerstein, 16 votes, and Pinellas County State Committeeman Tony DiMatteo, 7 votes.
In the runoff, Bitner won 153-74 over Cox-Roush, according to party sources – although the final numbers were not made public.
For his part, Scott largely steered clear of the contest. On Saturday, he praised the five candidates and said party officials had the right to choose their next leader – although his own political fortunes could clearly be shaped by state party actions.
Among Bitner’s biggest tasks, for example, will be guiding the Florida GOP toward the 2012 Republican National Convention, possibly a major showcase for Scott and the state party, and scheduled to be held in Tampa.
“They want to run a party, and they want to make sure this party follows the principles they believe in,” Scott told reporters after Bitner’s election. “They want the party itself to have transparency, they want the party itself to have accountability. I clearly believe in those things.”
Scott said, “Dave Bitner’s going to be a great chairman for the party. I’m excited about working with Dave. But again, we had great candidates….all of them believe in the principles of the party. They know the key to winning races in 2012 is grassroots.”
Bitner is a former legislator following Sen. John Thrasher – a current lawmaker – as party chairman. While Thrasher was pushed by House and Senate leaders to replace Greer, the party’s rank-and-file activists historically bristle when elected officials exert their muscle in the party.
“That Tallahassee insider stuff?” Scott said. “People know the way to win is grassroots, county-by-county. I won because we had much better grassroots than our competitor had.”
Bitner, too, downplayed his role as a lawmaker and lobbyist in traveling the state courting support in his race.
“I gave my speech from out here in the middle of the rank-and-file,” Bitner said about his nominating address Saturday. “I build my campaign by going through the state, in every county in the state….My main message was that for too long, the people haven’t had a chance to elect their chairman. I’m proud of the governor for allowing the grassroots to elect their chairman. Nothing happens in Tallahassee. Our job is to reinforce the local parties, and that’s what I’m there for.”
The chairman’s race featured plenty of behind-the-scenes jockeying, some of it hard-edged.
Cox-Roush fended off anonymous e-mail citing her 2004 DUI arrest and accusing her of using her party job to draw business for her catering company. Bitner and his wife, Wendy, were forced to explain a 1997 domestic-abuse complaint that she filed – but later withdrew.
By Saturday morning’s election, the campaign also included plenty of flash and swag for the party activists attending the weekend meeting.
The five contenders Friday night took part in an hourlong forum – with a central theme being that the party was looking to pivot past the free-spending Greer era, who also was vilified for backing former Gov. Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio in last year’s U.S. Senate race.
The five candidates also raised big money for their campaigns – Bitner, for one, said Friday that he collected about $60,000 from activists, lobbyists and political committees, although a day later he cautioned that he was unsure of his fundraising totals.
The contenders’ campaign cash was turned into mailers, coffee cups, candy bags and other get-out-the-vote trinkets. Gruters mailed bricks to activists as part of his campaign theme that he wanted to build the party.
The contributions also fueled open-bar receptions for the candidates courting support Friday night. Bitner’s candidate party included appearances by a George W. Bush imitator; Gruters had three sketch artists available for portraits of potential voters; Cox-Roush’s had classical music playing, while DiMatteo’s featured a keyboardist playing pop songs.
At the Friday forum, it was also clear that party leaders were mixed about what could emerge from the spring Legislature. The prospect of lawmakers approving leadership funds, which could by used by House and Senate leaders to fuel primary fights, were talked of warily by those running for chair.
Bitner and other candidates agreed, however, that they would push legislative leaders to revamp a state law approved during Greer’s tenure, giving the party boss power to remove elected REC members for various grievances.
“It’s unconscionable,” Bitner said of the current law.