DeSantis and Gruters clashed early in the governor’s term and the rivalry between the two men has been no secret.
In October 2019, Gruters canceled the Statesman’s Dinner, the party’s biggest annual fundraiser. The party announced the move on Twitter even as DeSantis Chief of Staff Shane Strum asked Gruters to wait while the governor negotiated to secure Trump as the keynote speaker.
The cancellation angered DeSantis. A day later, he blindsided Gruters by telling reporters that the event was still on, with Trump as the headliner.
When DeSantis made the announcement, Gruters was on the phone with party leaders doing damage control.
Around the same time, DeSantis tried to cut Gruters‘ pay.
Gruters acknowledged that he hasn’t had a close relationship with DeSantis but said things have improved over the past year.
The Florida GOP in the past has picked chairs without the support of the governor, with disastrous results. In 2015, the party selected state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill) over Leslie Dougher, who was then-Gov. Rick Scott’s hand-picked chair.
As a result, Scott pulled his formidable fundraising machine out of the party, leaving it staggering and broke.
Gruters roiled Republicans last week when he tweeted props to Florida Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat and possible challenger to DeSantis.
“@SenPizzo is a thoughtful and hard working member who has the ability to work across the aisle and he is also a successful businessman and an advocate for the free market and policies that will continue to move Florida forward,” Gruters tweeted. “Definitely not a socialist.”
Pizzo, on Twitter, had asked Gruters for his opinion.
Gruters later that day tweeted that DeSantis would “crush Senator Pizzo and I will have no problem hitting him if he does run,” but the damage had been done.
Many Republicans saw the tweet as a damaging strategic error after Republicans had successfully branded Democrats as socialists. The label is political kryptonite in South Florida, home to immigrants from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, many of whom fled leftist strongman regimes.
When President-elect Joe Biden won Miami-Dade County by just 7 points, Republicans credited their inroads to the branding of Democrats as socialist sympathizers.
“This last election was a referendum on socialism. Gruters just handed Pizzo his main talking point and all the votes Biden lost in Miami-Dade,” said a Republican consultant involved in the leadership fight but not aligned with a specific candidate. “It’s not every day a GOP Chairman paves a path to the governor’s mansion for a Democrat.”
Gruters, who also is an elected state senator, helped Trump win Florida twice and before 2016 had named him the Republican Party of Sarasota County’s statesman of the year three times. Gruters is chairman of the Sarasota GOP.
The list of potential Gruters challengers includes Leon County GOP Chair Evan Power, who considered a bid for chair before the party picked Gruters in 2018, and former state Rep. Matt Caldwell, who lost a bid for Agriculture Commissioner in 2018 by less than 7,000 votes.
Caldwell, the only statewide Republican to lose that year, said the party made strategic blunders that cost him his race.
“I was blown away there was not a predesigned campaign the Wednesday after the primary,” Caldwell said in an interview Monday. “I thought there would be a bus at the front door and someone saying, ‘Get in, you have a 10-week spring ahead.’ But it was everyone for themselves.”
“That might be one thing for senate and gubernatorial campaigns which have tons of resources, but that does not always work for Cabinet races,” he said.
Power gave 2020 credit to DeSantis, who he said “came up big for the Republican Party of Florida this cycle making a huge investment in registering voters.”
Gary Fineout contributed to this report.