After poor a midterm performance, a fight is breaking among Republican leadership in Seminole County.
County GOP chair Kathryn Townsend faces criticism of toying with membership lists to retain power for herself at the expense of party unity.
One countywide elected official has gone as far as offering the executive committee a $25,000 reward if Townsend’s unseated during Thursday’s leadership election.
Meanwhile, one of her challengers for chair, Ramesh Gupta, says he’s faced racially-charged insinuations about his religion and immigration status.
Townsend, who dismissed as lies any suggestion her leadership led to losses for local Republican candidates, said her own efforts to bring order to an unruly party organization have inspired backlash.
“I am the first chairman who has actually gone by the rules,” she said.
That’s included enforcing attendance requirements on executive committee members, who must now attend five of 11 meetings in a year — less than half — to keep their positions.
She also saw the ouster of former state Reps. Bob Cortes and Jason Brodeur from executive committee spots after their departures from the state House, the former after his loss to a Democrat. Again, she says, that comes down to a state statutory requirement of giving seats to lawmakers but not holding the spots there forever.
But critics say Townsend and other leaders of the local Republican Executive Committee have unceremoniously winnowed the organization while leaving their own power base intact, creating with it political consequences that hurt Republicans up and down the ballot in November.
Robin Siebold, a local activist, says she won’t be able to vote in county chair elections tomorrow because her own swearing in as an executive committee member has been conspicuously belayed for months.
“People keep saying we’ve got to vote her [Townsend] out, but then she stacks the deck to not let new people in,” Siebold alleges.
Couple that with the reduction in membership and Siebold said it’s not hard to see meddling in the contest for positions on the REC.
Add that to accusations Townsend outwardly dislikes President Donald Trump and Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis and there’s growing distrust of party leadership.
Townsend calls those accusations false. She acknowledges she supported U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2016 presidential primary. “But the day after the primary, I got on board with Trump and campaigned for Trump,” Townsend says, “which I believe is what we are supposed to do.”
She also says Siebold’s delayed membership had been a personal oversight, one she’s apologized for, but that when she later tried to have a separate vote to get Siebold sworn in, there was no quorum, and then numerous other members showed up and raised more insinuations of favoritism.
Townsend says she’s dealt with an array of lies, including recent accusations on the Orlando Political Observer that she backed Democratic candidates over Republican ones in recent state House races.
Now, a number of people could challenge her for chair. The most prominent of those appears to be Gupta, who boasts the backing of outside figures like U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.
An Indian immigrant, he’s running on the message that Republicans can expand beyond the party’s traditional base and reach minority populations who suffered the consequences of Democratic and big government policies.
But as he’s run, he said he’s facing assaults on his character. One executive committee member demanded Gupta prove his citizenship is valid.
Another wanted explanations why the businesses he owns are under his wife’s name; that makes sense because of the death tax, he said.
He also got questioned why as a Hindu, he’s got a Christmas tree in his house. His wife is Catholic.
“I thought we are all Republicans united,” he says, “that all we fight is the Democrats. I have never seen this kind of hatred within the party. This is amazing.”
“But I will unite the party. My goal is just beating the Democrats.”
None of those particularly hostile comments came from Townsend, he adds. The two have only had a couple conversations.
Townsend says their first conversation came just a couple months ago, at a time when Gupta warned there were snakes in the party coming for her.
Gupta acknowledges the conversation, but said he was saying he could take care of the snakes. In his telling, there was a suggestion of Gupta taking a party leadership role with much of the party’s current leadership, but he believes a new chair would need new leadership around him to have credibility.
Townsend says she’s frustrated at the sudden interest in party leadership by so many people who took no active role in the party leading up to the midterms.
“Those who want to take over tomorrow, why haven’t you been coming for the last two years?” she said.
While Republicans Rick Scott and DeSantis respectively won Senate and Governor races statewide, they both lost in Seminole by thousands of votes. And that’s in a county Trump won about 3,500 votes in 2016, and that Scott won by more than 10,000 when he ran for Governor in 2014.
Townsend claims that’s not the party’s fault. More Republicans than Democrats voted in the November election. Democrats locally seemed more disciplined with party-line votes, and that may have to do with local candidates failing to win over independents or even Republicans, but the party made sure to get its voters to polls.
But with those results and the loss of some local contests, some want a scalp.
Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, who has been at the center of racially charged scandal himself, on Wednesday promised to donate $25,000 of his own money “if anyone other than Kathryn Townsend is elected chairman.”
Townsend sees that as part of old-guard upset at the changes she’s brought to the party.
She notes when she got elected two years ago, it was as an outsider and compromiser, not an establishment figure. She once challenged Brodeur for his House seat, and figures that still drives much of the criticism against her from certain quarters.
But her critics say a new old guard runs the show, and Townsend and company must go.