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Tuesday, August 13, 2019
‘Poisoned’: Power struggle distances DeSantis from party. (POLITICO)
‘Poisoned’: Power struggle distances DeSantis from party
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis is the Florida Republican Party’s de facto leader and fundraiser-in-chief, but a rift between his loyalists and strategists for President Donald Trump’s reelection has distanced the governor from his own party apparatus as it gears up for 2020.
The deteriorating relationship includes a distancing between two powerful Republicans — DeSantis chief of staff Shane Strum and veteran GOP operative Susie Wiles, who helped DeSantis win election in 2018 and is expected to play a leading role in Trump’s Florida campaign.
In addition, DeSantis has but a superficial relationship with his own hand-picked party chairman, Joe Gruters, who was the governor’s second choice for the job. The Republican Party of Florida — largely steered by Gruters and Wiles — will be instrumental in next year’s presidential campaign.
DeSantis, himself a Trump loyalist, remains popular in the state and will continue to raise money — though on his own terms through a separate political committee. And the intraparty squabbling, while unusual, likely won’t make or break a Trump victory in the battleground state.
But it has alarmed rank-and-file Republicans, who are worried about the optics of a divided party and disengaged governor, especially one who Trump himself helped propel to victory in a close race last year. For this story, POLITICO interviewed 11 people close to DeSantis and the party.
In one corner are Strum and first lady Casey DeSantis, who critics say are trying to consolidate power and elbow others out of the governor’s orbit.
In the other are Wiles, Gruters, and the state’s Republican infrastructure. Wiles left the DeSantis campaign to concentrate on the party’s 2020 efforts and has been building her own power base at party headquarters, to the chagrin of Strum and the first lady.
Strum’s relationship with Wiles “has been poisoned,” said a Republican lobbyist familiar with the relationship.
Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota, was picked by DeSantis to lead the party because of his close ties to Trump, but he and the governor have little direct relationship.
The break began to surface in April, as Republicans were preparing for a Trump trip to Orlando to launch his presidential reelection campaign. About a dozen state party staffers, some of whom recently had been dispatched from Washington, had gathered at GOP headquarters in Tallahassee, where they met with Strum and the first lady, who has become a powerful force in the administration.
Strum and Casey DeSantis quizzed attendees about their backgrounds and where they came from. There was a sense that the two were trying to find out who was aligned with Wiles and Team Trump, and who was with DeSantis.
“‘Susie brought me down’ was basically the answer,” said one staffer with direct knowledge of the meeting. “I think that was when the governor had his first realization, ‘I’m paying for people at the party who are Susie people, where are my people?’”
Two other people with knowledge of the meeting had similar descriptions.
“There was some conversations at the party where they went in and asked where did people come from? They were kind of looking for operatives placed by Susie,” said a veteran Republican consultant. “There has been some heartburn over the fact the party was staffed with some operatives who were all Susie Wiles people.”
Soon after the April meeting, around the time of Trump’s kickoff in Orlando, DeSantis said he wouldn’t be “that involved” in the presidential campaign.
He told party officials that he would live up to his promise to raise $5 million for the Republican Party of Florida, but then cease party fundraising efforts to focus on his own political committee. In short, DeSantis, who Trump endorsed in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary, won’t be raising money for an organization that will play a key role in the president’s reelection.
The fundraising news “has made the grassroots nervous,” said one Republican Party official asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the press about sensitive party matters. “The promises of money have been left unfilled and, with the exception of the Trump victory program, the party has not been that active.”
The squabble bears the hallmarks of a political thriller, with competing narratives, souring relationships between once-powerful allies, and lobbyists tiptoeing around political minefields and political consultants duking it out over divided loyalties.
Wiles, who left a post as a DeSantis adviser after his Jan. 8 inauguration, said she has no ill will toward DeSantis and praised his eight months in office.
“I was happy and proud to do work for the governor’s campaign and lead the transition,” she said. “It is remarkable what the governor has done, and the it’s something we can be proud of.”
Gruters, too, swatted any notion of a rift between DeSantis and the party.
“There is no distance between the governor and I,” Gruters said. “We are united.”
Strum declined to comment.
While DeSantis will focus on raising political money for his personal committee, the governor would still be used for party email and mail fundraising, Gruters said.
DeSantis has never been convinced of the political utility of running money and operations through the Florida GOP. One consultant close to the governor said DeSantis views it as the “old guard” way of doing things.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, who was heavily involved with DeSantis’ campaign and remains a political surrogate for the governor, also downplayed the idea of bad blood between DeSantis and the state party.
“He is working to raise $5 million for Republican victory efforts,” Gaetz said. “I know the governor to be primarily focused on the job of being governor. I don’t think the politics have really been at the center of the governor’s thinking. He has been working hard with state agencies ahead of the upcoming legislative session.”
DeSantis, who was a three-term member of Congress, has clashed with his campaign teams in the past. He has generally worked with a political team for just one cycle before dispatching them, a trend that to a degree continued after he became governor.
“Nobody stays around DeSantis for too long, whether inside or outside. Interesting to watch the clash of influence going on around him,” said a veteran GOP consultant. “Anyone that thinks he is on their side is building a house in quicksand.”