The Hillsborough County Republican Party is in the midst of an identity crisis that is splitting the party’s organizational and fundraising arm.
It’s also causing local Republicans to flee leadership. Yet by the latest ruling from statewide Republican leadership, the Hillsborough Republican Executive Committee is likely to remain unchanged.
“I think as our state has shown great progress in registering new Republican voters and electing Republicans up and down the ballot,” Tampa Rep. Jackie Toledo said. “Here in Hillsborough County we’ve lost ground and as a party that is rooted in accountability and getting results. I think we certainly have to be open to new leaders who can help replicate the success Republicans have had in much of the rest of the state.”
Toledo has been calling for Hillsborough GOP Chair Jim Waurishuk’s removal at least since last year, when he made explosive and derogatory comments about the Black Live Matter movement. He also used the party as a platform to promote Donald Trump’s “stop the steal” efforts.
Myriad members have been calling for Waurishuk to step down for well over a year as well. Now, longtime Hillsborough Republicans and executive committee members have formed their own fundraising and organizational arm in defiance of the local party called the Hillsborough Leadership Council.
“The absence of a committed focus on developing prospective/viable candidates and aiding proven incumbents has taken a heavy toll that must be reversed,” Hung Mai, one of the group’s co-founders, said. “It is for these reasons, we formed the Hillsborough Leadership Council.”
Mai, an HCREC member and longtime GOP donor, formed the group with State Committeewoman April Schiff and Florida GOP Executive Committee Member Nancy Watkins.
Schiff had submitted a grievance against Waurishuk. She accused him of violating multiple party rules and causing local Republicans to flee the party. Waurishuk has been accused of focusing too much on national politics and extremism. He is a staunch supporter of Trump’s baseless election fraud claims and invited Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green to the party’s flagship fundraiser this summer.
“They (the HREC) have one job — get local Republicans elected,” Schiff said. “They have failed at that. There’s a total lack of leadership in the party. (Waurishuk) definitely should resign for the good of the party. If we ever want to get back to Republicans winning and holding office that’s the only way it’s going to happen.”
Republican Party of Florida Chair Joe Gruters addressed Schiff’s grievances. Gruters gave Waurishuk until early October to comply. Members said he hasn’t, but Gruters said Waurishuk isn’t going anywhere.
“Jim Waurishuk is the elected chairman. We will continue to work with him to try to make sure he addresses all issues,” Gruters said. “At the end of day, Jim was elected to represent and that’s the bottom line.”
Waurshiuk has pushed back on and dismissed the allegations.
“Our membership has grown steadily since I’ve been chairman,” he said. “The Grievance filed was nothing more than a political hit job.”
Anthony Pedicni is a local GOP strategist. He said Waurishuk’s preoccupation with promoting radical ideas aligned with Trump and his supporters, and other fringe, right-wing ideologies, has “destroyed” the Republican Party in Hillsborough and could take decades to rebuild. He called the HREC irrelevant and antithetical to the actual conservative Republican agenda.
“The inmates took over the asylum and people left. There was nothing there for anyone to do,” Pedicini said. “We don’t have a strong local party system in Florida. He needs to go. The things he says to the media alone are crazy. You can’t be a rightwing zealot and make an impact on elections.”
Waurishuk was first elected in 2018 and reelected in 2020. The HREC represents GOP interests in the county, but only executive committee members can vote for leadership.
Waurishuk said membership has grown by about 100 people since he took over to about 230 members. But Clif Curry, a Republican strategist and donor, said the numbers were once near 1,000. Keeping membership to a group of ideological loyalists makes it easier for Waurishuk to keep control.
“He’s taken a large group and whittled it down to a couple hundred on the far right that don’t represent the party,” Curry said.
Pedicini added donors are no longer interested in party operations. Instead, they fund local candidates individually. And, the GOP hasn’t been able to compete with Democrats in the county. Regardless of political affiliation, Pedicini said, the polarization of post-Trump politics and the politicization of public health issues have made Hillsborough Republicans an ineffective party under Waurishuk.
“It’s an irrelevant organization,” Pedicini said. “Jim Waurishuk made the REC completely irrelevant to candidates and elections in Hillsborough county.”
Mai said he hopes the new leadership council will help Republicans become more competitive in the county by getting back to locally focused issues, recruitment efforts and developing solid candidates.
Shawn Foster is the Republican state committeeman for Pasco County. He said the Pasco GOP had been facing similar issues. But there, he said, a leadership change led to the party doubling its membership and having some its biggest events in recent history.
“I know there’s been difficulty. We had issues like that in Pasco,” Foster said. “Since there’s been a change of leadership in the chairman and others, there’s been an absolute turn around with the Republican Party in Pasco. If change would happen, it’d be similar to what happened in Pasco. I believe a change would be a positive thing for Hillsborough County.”