Several high-profile Hillsborough County Republicans are launching an alternative wing of the county party to boost performance at the polls that has struggled over the past three election cycles.
GOP activist Hung Mai, Hillsborough County GOP Committeewoman April Schiff, and Florida GOP Executive Committee member Nancy Watkins are the founding members of the Hillsborough Leadership Council and its “Bridge the Gap!” Initiative to register voters, according to internal documents obtained by Florida Politics.
“HLC is a political committee under the Florida Statutes formed to further the cause of Growing & Winning in Hillsborough County, a welcome letter reads explaining the group’s mission.”
The Hillsborough County GOP is currently at a significant voter registration disadvantage, with Democrats holding a more than 71,000 voter advantage countywide, according to the most recent voter registration book closing numbers.
Recent election cycles have emphasized that advantage.
Over the course of just three cycles, Republicans went from a 5-2 majority on the Hillsborough County Commission to a 5-2 minority. And only one Republican currently holds countywide office.
“As you are aware, the 2018 and 2020 election results were disappointing for all of us in Hillsborough County, especially local races,” the document reads. “We cannot let this happen again in 2022. We must take decisive action now to ensure our government leaders represent our principles and values.”
Internal strife has plagued the local party in recent years, with controversial leadership from Hillsborough County GOP Chair Jim Waurishuk that often put him at odds with the establishment wing of the party.
Last June, several high profile Hillsborough conservatives called on Waurishuk to resign after he posted inflammatory comments on Facebook about the anti-police brutality protests that broke out across the country after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Every American better wake up. If we loose (sic) this country you will loose (sic) your life. If you’re a Republican, Conservative, Democrat Trump supporter, etc. — you will be murdered. You will be dragged from your burning home and be beat to death. This is a fact. This what they stand for,” Waurishuk wrote about protesters in a post that has since been removed.
Calls to resign came from Waurishuk’s predecessor, Deborah Tamargo, as well as state Reps. Jackie Toledo and Lawrence McClure and former Rep. Jamie Grant.
Critics worry Waurishuk’s fiery rhetoric, often aligned with former President Donald Trump, creates challenges in a county that now leans more blue than purple.
In addition to registering voters, the group will also contribute to local Republican candidates, assist grassroots groups with voters outreach and canvassing, provide social media and technology to enhance get out the vote efforts, provide direct voter contact through phone banks and micro-targeted mail campaigns and recruit, prepare and assist quality GOP candidates.
In a separate document, also obtained by Florida Politics, the group hopes to raise at least $341,000 to cover its anticipated first-year voter registration drive budget. That includes costs for things like tents, tables, chairs, tablecloths, office supplies and decorations, as well as American flags, consultant fees, and training lunches. The goal would also include volunteer stipends for travel and gas, meals, giveaway prizes and literature.
Florida election law requires voter registration drives to be nonpartisan, but the group strategically plans its outreach to target potential GOP voters without stepping outside legal boundaries.
That includes targeting events at local gas stations, grocery stores, fast-food chains, churches, and special events like concerts, boat shows, home shows and monthly naturalization ceremonies.
“Division of Election rules prohibit partisan activities during voter registration drives,” the document reads. “Consequently, all voters will be registered, literature will be provided to describe the difference in the parties and the advantages/disadvantages of registering with a particular party without violating any rules.”
The group hopes to register 20,000 new voters in its first year, a mark achievable, the document says, by deploying 10 teams for a minimum of four hours per week. Each team would have a goal of registering 25 voters per week.
Volunteer recruitment is already underway, with Schiff visiting Republicans throughout the county to share the group’s mission.
“The response has been very good, and there is a strong belly that the volunteer efforts will be successful,” the document reads. “Additional volunteers will be recruited to attend voter registration training class lunches.”
While information about the Hillsborough Leadership Council just went out to GOP members this week, the committee has been registered with the Florida Division of Elections since mid-September of 2020.
As of March 31, the group has raised $8,100, including $5,000 in November, $1,000 the last week of September, $1,000 in mid-October, $1,000 in December, and $100 in January.
Mai contributed $5,000 of that haul, with $1,000 checks coming from Schiff, Jewish Floridians for America, and Safety Harbor resident Marc Middleton.
The group has spent less than $250 so far, all on credit card processing fees.