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Handicapping the RPOF chair race: Cox Roush up, Bitner surging

The election for the chair of any party, especially the Republican Party of Florida, is a race like no other. It’s a battle of insider-activists decided solely by insider-activists (i.e., the 257 Republican Executive Committee members). There’s no scientific polling. No real fundraising. No strong indication about who’ll be the winner Jan. 15.

Ask REC voters whom they favor, and the vast majority are mum. Each candidate has the same basic, core platform: “I’m not Jim Greer.”

Ask who’s the frontrunner right now, you get three answers: 1) Am I off the record? 2) Deborah Cox-Roush, the Hillsborough County chair. 3) Maybe Dave Bitner, Jefferson County committeeman.

A few reasons Cox Roush seems favored: She represents one of the biggest Republican counties, she played a role in helping outgoing Chair and Sen. John Thrasher, and she was recently slammed in anonymous mailers --a sign she’s the frontrunner. Cox-Roush seems a bit paranoid. While giving her pitch to one of the caucuses Friday, she was busy inveighing against the ills of leaking to the press and stopped mid sentence to scold Nassau State Committeeman Doug Adkins for setting up a video camera. “Make sure that doesn’t fall into the hands of the St. Pete Times,” she said sternly.

Bitner seems to be closing on her, partly because he has a more jovial approach, despite his hulking defensive end-like physique. Bitner also has legislative experience as both a lawmaker and as a lobbyist. So he knows how to raise money and work the process.

To win, though, Bitner would have to start working as hard for the chairmanship as Joe Gruters, the Sarasota County chair who spent last legislative committee week making the rounds and shaking hands with lawmakers. “He’s the only one who stopped by to talk to me,” said House Republican Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, appointed by House Speaker Dean Cannon last week to the REC. Gruters, an accountant, seems like more of a technocrat that a politicker, though. Spending lots of time talking about financial databases and websites, Gruters’ speaking style isn’t as smooth as Bitner’s or as intense as Cox-Roush’s. He sees salvation through technology. “Right now, we have a major branding problem,” Gruters said. Last summer, he seemed to be a favorite of Rick Scott who praised him as being a “great” choice for party chair.

But then Scott, after becoming gov. elect, turned around and asked Thrasher to stay on as party chair. No dice, said Thrasher. Now, Scott is apparently staying out of the race, though insiders say he’ll want to select the party executive director. Perhaps Gruters’ biggest negative is his youth. He’s 33, old enough to be the son of his four challengers.

Like Gruters, Palm Beach County Chairman Sid Dinerstein is a numbers guy who seems better at finance than public speaking and internal vote-getting. A successful businessman, Dinerstein wants more checks on party spending and moved unsuccessfully Saturday to restrain the future chairman’s spending authority. Had his financial controls been in place during the Greer era, Dinerstein said “We would’ve saved a whole lot of money – and embarrassment.”

Pinellas County Committeeman Tony DiMatteo lays claim to being the original Jim Greer hater. He was one of the most vocal critics of Greer early on and was one of the first top Republicans in the U.S. Senate race to split from Gov . Charlie Crist and back one-time longshot Marco Rubio, now the Republican Party’s biggest star in Florida and one of its most prominent fresh faces nationally. Alas for DiMatteo, Rubio intends to stay neutral. And while DiMatteo is a solid fundraiser and tough scrapper, he’s probably a little too tough and too unpolished to be embraced by the Republican establishment (hence Cox-Roush and Bitner’s likely leads)


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I lived in Bitner's district when he was the state representative. Trust me, you do not want this guy as chairman. He is the former part owner of a liberal newspaper, his votes were moderate to say the least, and he is all for Dave Bitner. When the three people in his former home county are not going to vote for him why should anyone else?

Mike in Wakulla

BM - Not true about Bitner. He was a champion of conservative ideas in the state legislature and has worked for Republican candidates across the state. My mother lives in Punta Gorda and says he was the best Republican State Representive we've ever had.

I'm assuming BM is a part of the Joe Greuter/Jim Greer entourage.

Jerry Paul

Mike in Wakulla is right. BM gets it so wrong, it’s hard to believe he’s from District 71. My wife and I grew up there and raised our children there. Dave Bitner was our State Rep. He was a conservative’s conservative and a Republican’s Republican… which didn’t make him too popular with the newspaper editorial boards and other liberal groups. I remember Bitner was always endorsed by the NRA, Florida Right To Life, the police and sheriff’s. In 8 years, he never inserted a single earmark in the budget, even though he was in leadership and could have done so. He was a budget hawk. He was a stand-up guy … never backed down, even when attacked by powerful leftwing groups like the trial lawyers who disliked him because he was the leading advocate for tort reform. Notice, BM refers to us Republicans as “you”… as in “you people [Republicans]” … as in, BM is probably a Democrat or a plant from somebody else running for Chairman.

don cunningham

My Wife and I have known Joe Gruters for many years here in Sarasota, during which time we have been part of the Sarasota County Republican Executive Committee.
Joe has done an extraordinary job as Chairman of the Sarasota Republican Party, with some of the best results in the State. He is gifted to be able to effectively pull together and work with a wide cross-section of different ideological groups that have similar Republican core values. He does this smoothly and with high personal and professional integrity.
He is very open in considering diverse opinions and uses good practical sense in developing excellent consensus decisions. No one in the County works harder to arrange rallies and to promote Republican values, with the result that it was a Republican sweep in our County last election.
He is quoted with high regard in the local media and is a highly respected County leader. We believe he would excel as Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
Don & Rita Cunningham

Tad MacKie

I watched as Joe Gruters re-united a splintered SRQ REC to be the most effective county REC in the state. I kept track of all the numbers and Srarsota is at the top of the heap. Most phone bank calls made... Highest percentage of absentee ballots returned... Highest rally attendance... the list goes on.
I don't know why anybody would lump him with Greer. I guess they just want to say something negative. Joe's a great leader and and is true to a good set of morals. He keps a steady hand on the wheel and brings people together in such a way as to have them beleive they did it themselves. He'll be a GREAT RPOF Chairman.

GOP Insider

Joe Gruters has an entourage as big as Jim Greer's. He brought a staff with him to the RPOF quarterly. His experience is thinner than a dime and our party will struggle mightily if he is elected chairman. We can't afford to take a chance on someone as inexperienced and arrogant as he is.

Paul A Cajka

I do not know much of Jim Greer's achievements. I met him once or twice when helping out in previous elections. But I do know Joe Gruters. Joe has been working in GOP politics as long as I have, but he has accomplished so much more. In two years he turned around a complacent county organization that was nearly washed over by Obama misled lemmings. It takes leadership to turn back the clock to before 2006. Joe Gruters has real fire in the belly, not just fake enthusiasm. JOE GRUTERS FOR RPOF CHAIR.

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