Christian Ziegler says the idea of challenging Blaise Ingoglia for leadership of the Republican Party of Florida first came to his mind last May. He was presiding over a gathering of the state’s Republican committeemen and committeewomen at the party’s quarterly meeting in Tampa.
That’s when he said a slight case of pandemonium erupted when he began distributing approximately 150 “Make America Great Again” Donald Trump caps to the 134-member caucus. With a number of those officials previously rooted in camps backing Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (among others), he admits he wasn’t sure what the reaction would be. But he said that the level of excitement that ensued was absent from the rest of the two-day meeting.
“I had so many members after come up to me, and say, ‘Look, the energy that you had, that’s the kind of energy we should have had throughout the quarterly meeting,'” he says, recollecting the moment. He said he heard from Republicans that “we need leaders who are going to accept who our nominee is going to be, and accept who are candidates are and are going to waive the flag as high as you can, and we really need to lead with the energy you generated in that room.”
From there he says that “a ton of members” then began lobbying him directly to challenge Ingoglia, claiming that leadership was lacking at the top of the RPOF (As RPOF Chair, Ingoglia was dedicated to staying neutral until the party had a nominee. After the convention, Ingoglia met with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach County).
But nobody is questioning the success that Ingoglia has had since defeating Leslie Dougher, Rick Scott’s hand-picked choice for chair of the RPOF in 2015. Florida Republicans had a huge night at the polls last November, with the most significant factor being the election of Trump over Hillary Clinton by 1.2 percentage points.
Because Scott and the Republicans in the Florida Senate have chosen not to raise money directly for the party’s coffers, however, Ziegler says fundraising remains a major problem going into the 2018 midterm election.
“In 2016 we were fortunate to have the help of the Republican National Committee,” he says. “We had Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, we had the local Donald Trump efforts, and we had our local campaign parties, and early in that dynamic I think that they all came together to help us win.”
Ziegler contends that staff has been cut significantly with the Republican Party of Florida and fundraising is lower than it’s been in a decade, events that he says are realities that REC members have to consider when choosing who they want to lead the party.
“You can’t argue with success,” counters Ingoglia. “We were able to accomplish historic wins and a level of success that quite frankly has been unprecedented.”
Ingoglia says the state party currently has $3.6 million cash on hand, and $1.1 million of that has already been committed to the 2016-2018 election year. That’s money earmarked for field staff, infrastructure, overhead and political operations, historically more money than is traditionally been banked immediately after an election. “I came through on my promises and did what I said I was going to do about running the RPOF like a business, and making sure resources were used in the most efficient way possible to win elections,” he says.
In addition to chairing the state party, Ingoglia has served in the House of Representatives since 2014, representing parts of Hernando County. And he runs two different businesses, prompting Ziegler to say that he’s spread too thin.
“Blaise is a friend,” Ziegler says, ” But I think the party deserves a full-time chairman that’s focused on the party full-time, because we are the most important political state in the entire country.”
The 46-year-old Ingoglia says the “proof is in the pudding” when it comes to how successful he’s been as party chair. “Anybody who knows me and follows me on social media knows that I travel all over the state and I devote almost every day and every night to my district, my state and to make this party better,” he says, adding that it would be a “mischaracterization” to say he doesn’t work full-time as RPOF chair.
When it comes to high-end endorsements, Ingoglia has it all over his challenger. Last week, the Spring Hill Republican announced the support of 10 state senators, including Majority Leader Bill Galvano and former House Majority Leader and newly elected Sen. Dana Young.
But Ziegler says that Ingoglia’s list of endorsers is somewhat suspect. He claims some of those backing the incumbent did so before there were any challengers in the race. He also says that some people have publicly said they will endorse Ingoglia but secretly have told Ziegler that they will vote for him.
“When you look at those endorsement lists, I’ve met with the majority of people on that endorsement list over the past month and a half, and I’m making my case privately,” he says.
But two different Republican officials involved in statewide politics who asked not to be quoted have told Florida Politics that they question the numbers that Ziegler is talking about. One Central Florida REC official says he believes the votes for Ziegler “simply aren’t there.”
Ingoglia defeated Dougher 132-90 in January of 2015. This Central Florida official believes the vote won’t be as close next time. Naturally, Ziegler disagrees.
“I think this race is going to be very close and it’s going to come down to a couple of votes either way,” he maintains.
Another North Florida Republican local party official says that Ingoglia has delivered as promised on his campaign pledges from two years ago, and there isn’t any grassroots energy to try to reverse that.
Ziegler is considered to be Scott’s choice for the position, but it’s questionable how influential his word is with Republican state executive committee members, since he has assiduously eschewed helping the party financially for the past two years, instead directing his fundraising efforts into his own Let’s Get to Work political action committee.
Ziegler also announced on Monday that he will be holding a statewide conference call on Thursday evening for state committee executive members to ask him questions about his candidacy.
The election for RPOF chair takes place on January 14 in Orlando.