Republican state Senate candidate Joe Gruters knows his success this year relies on the strength of the GOP ticket as a whole.
“We’re trying to drive turnout for the entire team,” he said.
As the 10-year chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota, Gruters knows the importance of lifting the entire slate more acutely than most politicians. This year, he says, base turnout will make or break certain campaigns.
“You used to be able to identify voters that cared about education. You could send them something about what you would do to increase teacher pay, and maybe you could turn them,” he said.
“In today’s environment, it’s ‘Do you support Trump or not’ ”
Raising all boats
Gruters spent part of Saturday afternoon doing joint phone banking with Republican state House candidate Ray Pilon, who is seeking to unseat Democratic state Rep. Margaret Good in House District 72. That district lies entirely within Senate District 23, so if every Pilon voter backs Gruters and vice versa, both Republicans should get a lift.
Gruters will take it. He feels good about his standing against Democrat Faith Olivia Babis.
His own internal polling shows him ahead by 9 points, but that’s a little close for comfort considering the district went to Republican Greg Steube two years ago by nearly 18 points. Still, he’s on track to win and that’s good enough in a year like this.
As party chairman, Gruters developed a sterling reputation for GOTV. He won the chairmanship in Sarasota County a month after the 2008 presidential election, when Republican nominee John McCain won the county by just 211 votes and lost statewide to Democrat Barack Obama.
But four years into Gruters’ tenure, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the county by more than 15,000 votes. In 2016, now-President Donald Trump won the county by nearly 27,000 votes and secured Florida’s electoral votes.
Gruters played an outsized role in that last one. Though normally allergic to primary endorsements, he backed Trump early in the campaign cycle, back when most party leaders lined up behind Sen. Marco Rubio or former Gov. Jeb Bush. Trump ended up kicking off his Florida campaign at Robarts Arena in Sarasota.
After Trump won the Republican nomination, Gruters became co-chair of the Florida campaign. Trump’s final rally the day before the election once again took place in Robarts.
A record to run on
That was 2016, and two years later, Democrats bring up Gruters’ ties to the White House as often as he does. But Gruters in 2016 also enjoyed a personal political success, winning House District 73.
In other words, he’s got his own record to run upon.
He likes to note how often he’s bucked House leadership — on business incentives and on VISIT Florida. And he proudly defends his vote in favor of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.
Back home, it’s been a year of ups and downs.
Remember that District 72 race? In February, Good won that seat in a nationally watched special election. Just for fun, Good ran against James Buchanan, the son of sitting U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, who happens to be a personal mentor to Gruters.
But heading into the election in Sarasota, Gruters feels much better than he did in February. As of Saturday morning, 15,492 Republican voters in the county had already voted early or by mail, compared to 13,088 Democrats and 7,868 no-party affiliation voters.
And Sarasota differs from the state as a whole in that Democrats usually perform better in absentee voting while Republicans typically outnumber Democrats on election day two-to-one. Call it a side effect to serving as home to so many wealthy retirees.
“I expect a surge to the finish,” he said. “We’re going to have a phenomenal night as a party and for our candidates locally.”
That’s important to Gruters, who announced this month that this would be his last term as chairman of the party. If he could sweep one more election cycle, it would be a good way to go out, especially considering that would guarantee his ascent to the state Senate.
Regardless, he’s left the party stronger than he found it. In nine of 10 years of his chairmanship, Republicans registered more new voters than Democrats. That includes the last two years even in the face of an increasingly fractious and anti-Trump national dialogue.
“I’ve loved being party chairman,” Gruters said. But it’s also grueling work, and he says it’s time to move on. Assuming he wins the Senate seat, he’s about to triple his constituents as a lawmaker. Not to mention he’s got three small kids at home and his own accounting firm.
For now, he remains focused on electoral success, for the party’s statewide like U.S. Senate candidate Rick Scott and gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, all the way down to Republicans running for the Venice and North Port City Councils.
And oh yeah, also for himself.