The past decade has been very kind to Sarasota Republican Joe Gruters.
In 2010, Gruters was 1 of 67 county GOP chairs in Florida. Sure, he had quickly built the Sarasota GOP into something of a local machine within a couple years of Barack Obama almost winning there, but outside of the greater Sarasota region, hardly anyone knew Gruters’ name.
Fast-forward 10 years and Gruters, while still not a household name, has built a helluva resume. He was recently reelected to a second term in the Florida Senate and he’s the chair of the Republican Party of Florida, which just pantsed its Democratic counterpart up-and-down the 2020 ballot.
Gruters’ run began when he backed an obscure businessman over Attorney General Bill McCollum in the 2010 GOP primary for Florida Governor. That businessman’s name was Rick Scott, who as we all know, went on to upset the befuddled establishment figure. More recently, he outworked Sen. Bill Nelson on the campaign trail in 2018 to deny the Democrat a fourth term in the Senate.
In what seemed another long odds gamble, Gruters became one of the first Florida leaders to endorse another businessman, Donald Trump, for a run for the White House. Again, Gruters invested early, inviting Trump to be the Republican Party of Sarasota’s Statesman of the Year in 2012 when the Mitt Romney wing of the party didn’t want to be caught dead in the same convention hall as the host of “The Apprentice.” Again, Gruters saw what few else could, that a populist with a private sector resume was the person the party would rally around all the way to the White House. And while Trump won’t serve a second term, it’s no fault of Gruters, who helped Republicans more than triple the President’s lead in 2020 over his decisive victory in 2016.
Along the way, he pressed Trump and GOP leaders to back Carlos Giménez in his successful bid to oust Debbie Mucarsel-Powell from a House seat and believed in Maria Elvira Salazar‘s ability to defeat Donna Shalala when many considered that win a pipe dream.
Now Gruters wants another term as Florida GOP chair. Everyone’s on board except for maybe one important person: Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“He doesn’t like him” blasted a POLITICO headline on Thanksgiving eve. The article took notice of the Governor’s silence on the chair race, and sourced people close to DeSantis who signaled he would like to see some change.
That’s important, considering the Governor’s reelection in 2022, four years after scraping into office with a margin of victory verified only after a machine recount. The race will likely be Florida’s marquee contest of the 2022 cycle, and the Governor wants a party chair he can trust.
It has been rocky at times for DeSantis and Gruters. While the Sarasota Chair was practically recruited into the job and started out with the Governor’s support, disagreements over staffing seeded tension almost immediately. Gruters’ choice for Executive Director, Jennifer Locetta, was eventually replaced with DeSantis’ pick Peter O’Rourke, who eventually left as well. Now, DeSantis’ former comms director, Helen Aguirre Ferré, holds the job.
The POLITICO piece also made note of a turbulent episode involving the hasty cancellation and sudden rescheduling of the Republican Party of Florida’s Statesman’s Dinner. DeSantis world recalls Gruters sending out an abrupt notice the dinner was off before DeSantis came out the next day announcing Trump would be the keynote for the dinner on a new date. For the record, Gruters world described what was going down differently at the time, as talks about bringing the President on dragged out until there was no choice but to nix the first event, only to have the Governor issue his own announcement hours later that it was on and Trump was coming.
Regardless, there’s good reason to think DeSantis doesn’t like Gruters much.
But here’s the rub… does it much matter who DeSantis likes? Because DeSantis doesn’t really like anyone.
DeSantis doesn’t like Rick Scott, who reportedly held a party in the Governor’s mansion while the DeSantis family moved in, then had the audacity to leave DeSantis’ inauguration early for his own swearing in to the Senate.
DeSantis doesn’t like Susie Wiles, who played as significant a role as anyone in winning DeSantis’ race in 2018.
DeSantis didn’t like his congressional colleagues, many of whom still recall the Ponte Verde Republican’s unwillingness to socialize on the Hill.
He doesn’t like many Florida mayors, and they don’t like him either.
DeSantis doesn’t like his congressional staff (point to someone who worked for him on the Hill who works for him now in the Governor’s Office; we’ll wait).
DeSantis doesn’t like the people who got him elected Governor (is anyone from the team that rescued his floundering General Election campaign still working with him?)
DeSantis doesn’t seem to like many of the people who have worked for him, except for the most likable person in Florida government, Shane Strum.
Oh, and in case you missed it, DeSantis definitely doesn’t like the media.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism of DeSantis. He doesn’t have to like anyone to be a good Governor.
So let’s not hold it against Gruters that DeSantis doesn’t like him — that’s just the default position for DeSantis.
But the Governor should consider whether he still holds the trust of other leaders, whether he likes them or they like him. It’s notable that regardless of whether Gruters remains state chair, he’s in the Senate for the rest of DeSantis’ first term in office. As a close ally to Senate President Wilton Simpson, Gruters holds significant sway over how much of DeSantis’ aggressive agenda over the next two years makes it through the chamber.
There’s also the fact that Gruters is liked by many elected officials throughout the state, many of whom owe their careers, at least in part, to the party leader’s labors on their behalf.
That’s what happens when you lead a successful political operation that wins despite a difficult environment. Heck, Gruters can probably win another term as chair whether DeSantis backs him this time or not. The result could be the type of wall between the Governor’s Office and the state party headquarters that stood during the Scott-versus-Blaise Ingoglia days of not-so-distant-past.
Indeed, Gruters doesn’t have to push aside a sitting chair in a party uprising. He just needs most of the votes he had when he won the chairmanship (no recount necessary) to stick with him now. He can likely do that even if a contingent of DeSantis loyalists vote against him.
It’s probably the safest thing for the Governor to keep lines of communication with Gruters open and avoid a losing political squabble as he braces for two regular Sessions between now an election that could either end his career or set the stage for a White House run.
DeSantis is Governor. He’s the boss. But Gruters should get another term as Florida GOP chair. Whether DeSantis likes it or not.
Reporter Jacob Ogles co-authored this op-ed.