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Republicans see conspiracy in tea party candidates

As election qualifying ended Friday, the dust settled with a dozen or more tea party candidates challenging state lawmakers in contested races.

Republicans see a conspiracy theory: a number of the tea party candidates are former Democrats, some appear financially strapped to pay the $1,800 filing and others are filing to run in districts far away from their listed address. A number of the seats are also targeted by Democrats for takeover.

"The recent flurry of last minute filings by so –called “tea party candidates” looks awfully suspicious," said GOP Chairman John Thrasher in a statement. "While a few tea-party candidates across the state do have ties to the tea party movement, in the majority of instances, it appears that the Democrats have coordinated a dishonest attempt to hide phony candidates behind the name “tea party” and to confuse voters who may be supportive of the tea party movement, effectively stealing votes from true conservative candidates and injuring the grassroots tea party movement as a whole."

(Sound familiar? Democrats sounded a similar alarm two years ago with the mysterious emergence of "Green Party" candidates. Read more here and here.)

A number of the tea party candidates we called referred us to Fred O'Neal, the head of the party. (Though remember there is a dispute about this, too.) O'Neal, a registered Democrat before becoming a tea party member, said the GOP theory is ridiculous. He said he is just following through on his promise to recruit challengers for Republican lawmakers who supported the SunRail project in the December special session.

One of the candidates is Victoria Torres, a 51-year-old Orlando resident who filed to run in District 51, currently held by Democrat Janet Long, who lives in Seminole in Pinellas County.

"It's not that we are out to help Democrats," he said. "We are out to hurt Republicans who are for fiscal responsibility and who are not."

He said the party helped pay candidate's filing fees (one candidate from the Orlando area lists a net worth of $4,500) and will help with campaigning. "Republicans really need to worry about their own business," he said. "A number of them will probably go to jail for tax problems."

The Democratic party said something similar. "Despite their beliefs, the black helicopters are not coming to get John Thrasher," said Eric Jotkoff, a party spokesman. "Maybe they should spent more time cleaning up their party."