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Team of rivals: Inside the early days of the Ron DeSantis transition

The under-the-radar scrum to lead the Republican Party of Florida for the next two years is threatening to expose a growing fault line inside the incoming administration of Ron DeSantis.

On one side is powerful Congressman Matt Gaetz … on the other is, well, most everyone else advising the Governor-elect.

Gaetz is one of four co-chairs of DeSantis’ transition team. He was also one of the earliest and most outspoken backers of DeSantis’ underdog bid for Florida Governor.

When most of the Republican establishment was backing Adam Putnam to be the nominee, Gaetz was caravanning with “Bikers for Trump” to gin up support for his House colleague.

Among the four transition co-chairs, Gaetz is first among equals.

Corcoran is a recent convert to Team DeSantis, whereas Gaetz was in on the ground floor. Gaetz is “in the room” much more often than former Sen. George LeMieux. And he’s much more plugged into the political scene in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., than former Senate President Toni Jennings.

Perhaps most importantly, DeSantis and Gaetz share much of the same worldview. President Donald Trump included the two as among just four lawmakers he describes as “warriors.”

The only real bulwark against Gaetz inside the transition has been Susie Wiles, the veteran operator widely credited with shoring up DeSantis’ general election campaign.

Wiles was eager to return to her position in the private sector after the election. However, sources close to her and DeSantis said she stayed on to lead the transition, in part, because she knew she had to serve as a counter to Gaetz’s deep pull with DeSantis.

Any differences between Gaetz and Wiles have so far remained under the radar (and it’s important to note that sources close to both individuals readily say the two agree on 95 percent of issues), but after a vote to decide who will lead the Collier County GOP and with key personnel gubernatorial staffing decisions waiting to be made, DeSantis must decide which direction he wants to take his administration.

On Monday, the Collier GOP chose Russell Tuff to lead the county party. Normally, this kind of vote would not be a big deal. However, Tuff defeated state Rep. Byron Donalds for the position.

Donalds was running for the county position as a stepping stone to run for chair of the Republican Party of Florida. But now, with Donalds losing that vote, his chances of leading the Florida GOP are a longshot.

Gaetz was backing Donalds (perhaps among others) to succeed Blaise Ingoglia as Florida GOP chair. Ingoglia has publicly stated that he has not decided whether to seek another term as party boss.

But multiple sources close to DeSantis as well as the GOP chair election process say that DeSantis made it clear to Ingoglia that he would like to see someone else lead the party.

Separate sources say DeSantis’ message to Ingoglia was motivated, in part, from direction provided by the White House’s political operation.

“It’s no secret Blaise has had his problems with the White House,” said a source familiar with DeSantis’ conversation with Ingoglia.

Sources close to Ingoglia, who, if you go by just the election numbers, is one of the most successful party chairs in state history, deny that DeSantis is trying to push Ingoglia aside.

With DeSantis shopping for a new party chair, Gaetz and others suggested Donalds as a possibility. But others close to DeSantis and the transition advised the Governor-elect to stay out of a county party vote, warning that because Donalds probably could not win in Collier, he would not be a statewide factor.

Even though Donalds ran for the position, seemingly with DeSantis’ support, the Governor-elect did not come out in support of Donalds. That’s why, after the vote, Gaetz was able to take to Twitter and distance DeSantis from Donalds’ loss.

But with Donalds’ ambitions thwarted (at least temporarily), DeSantis is again faced with the question of what to do with Ingoglia, who had said he would make a decision about his future by last Friday.

Some say Ingoglia is the only candidate who can keep the race for Florida GOP to devolving into a sh*t show, while others say that the rank-and-file are hungry for a change in leadership. Update – State Sen. Joe Gruters is emerging as another contender for party chair.

On Monday, DeSantis had extended conversations with five possible successors to Ingoglia:

Mike Barnett of Palm Beach County.

Jeremy Evans of Escambia County.

Peter Feaman of Palm Beach County.

Evan Power of Leon County.

Christian Ziegler of Sarasota County.

Also in those meetings were Lieutenant Governor-elect Jeanette Nunez, Gaetz and Wiles.

It’s not clear who Gaetz is now supporting with Donalds out of the picture, but others inside the transition are using Donalds’ loss as yet another example of Gaetz’s heavy hand in the transition process.

They also point to Gaetz’s pushing of House Democrat Jared Moskowitz for the position of Director of Emergency Management and his undercutting of Richard Corcoran for Education Commissioner as two other situations in which Gaetz’s advice has not served DeSantis well.

Critics wonder how Gaetz could suggest Moskowitz, not because of the glaring conflict of interest because of his working for Ashbritt Environmental, but because the Coral Springs lawmaker was such an outspoken critic of President Trump.

The reference to Corcoran arises from reports in the media that former state Senate President Don Gaetz turned down the position of Education Commissioner. Gaetz was, in fact interviewed, but Corcoran was offered the job.

The idea that Don Gaetz was offered Education Commissioner is “unequivocally false” said one source close to DeSantis, while a second source said the continued pushing of that narrative is “disrespectful to both the Governor-elect and to Corcoran.”

One fight that Gaetz clearly lost was the battle over who would be DeSantis’ Chief of Staff. He pushed hard for Kathy Mears, top in-house lobbyist for Florida State University, but in the end, Mears took herself out of contention, making it easy for DeSantis to go with Shane Strum.

Now Strum, having arrived in Tallahassee this week, must help sort out the first big personality rift in the DeSantis transition.

Written By

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Orlando Rising and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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