Looking forward to 2012, and unconcerned about promoting a "Tallahassee insider," Republicans elected David Bitner chairman of the state party on Saturday.
Bitner edged Cox-Roush in a runoff after none of the five candidates attained a majority in the first round of voting. Bitner led the initial tally with 109, followed by Cox-Roush, who garnered 58.
The three other candidates trailed far behind: Joe Gruters, 37; Sid Dinerstein, 16; and Tony DiMatteo, 7.
Bitner prevailed in the runoff as supporters of the second-tier candidates shifted to the Jefferson County state committeeman and former state legislator.
Both Bitner and Cox-Roush encountered anonymous attacks during the campaign, but still finished one-two in the balloting.
In his first act as chairman, Bitner brought his rivals to the podium at the Dolphin Resort at Disney's Epcot, where he applauded "a great team."
"There's unity here. There were no bad people in this race," said Bitner, who also worked several years as a lobbyist in Tallahassee.
Choking with emotion, Bitner said he was "honored" to lead the party.
"We are unified, and we will deliver," Bitner pledged.
Cox-Roush turned down a draft to nominate her for another term as vice chairman. True to her word during the campaign, she said she was not running for vice chair.
But, she added, "I'm not done yet."
Cox-Roush, whom many believed was the front-runner in the contest, was dogged by the revelation that she had been arrested for drunk driving in 2004.
She also was plagued by persistent reports that she used her position in the party to benefit her catering business. Cox-Roush denied the allegations, but the attacks chipped away at her standing.
Bitner, meanwhile, had his own issues. A 1999 domestic-abuse complaint filed and subsequently withdrawn by his wife, Wendy, raised concerns about his personal life. So did subsequent revelations about his four previous marriages.
Pointing to Bitner's voting state House record from 1992-2000, the Florida Lawyers Action Group claimed that his seat was "for sale." Bitner responded that he "never sponsored an earmark."
Saturday's vote suggested that Republican delegates considered the 1999 domestic incident ancient history. And riding a wave of support among legislative delegates, the former state representative prevailed in the runoff.
Bitner, appearing humble and soft-spoken in accepting his nomination, was the lone candidate to speak from the floor of the convention.
Invoking the names of his wife and Jesus Christ, Bitner promised party delegates, "We'll be one big family." His remarks were by far the shortest and most emotional of those made by the five candidates.
Cox-Roush, by contrast, brought out the heavy guns. U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, in his nominating speech, said Cox-Roush "stood (against Gov. Charlie Crist) when most people looked the other way."
Carole Jean Jordan, a former RPOF chair, seconded Ross' motion, saying Cox-Roush "formed a partnership with (John) Thrasher to take our party back. We don't have time for on-the-job training."
Gruters, the party chairman of Sarasota County, waged the most high-profile campaign for chairman. He received several endorsements, including a nominating speech from Sen. Anitere Flores. But instead of working for him, his age as the only candidate under 55 appeared to work against him.
Significantly, Gruters was the only candidate to publicly reference the tea party and 9/12 patriot groups. But his call for the RPOF to reach out to those voters appeared to fall on deaf ears, as he finished a distant third in the voting.
Similarly, Cox-Roush failed to connect with party delegates as she vowed to "create a culture of accountability" and promised "rigorous financial management" within the party.
"I'm not a Tallahassee insider. I don't owe anyone anything," she said.
Yet Cox-Roush's professed independence may have hurt her on the night before the vote when she said she would shut down legislators' coveted leadership funds.
Gruters echoed that line during the Friday night forum, noting that "leadership spinoffs in California have made that state's party virtually irrelevant."
While such talk might be red meat for party reformers, it didn't go down well with state legislators who were voting delegates. Some noted that neither Cox-Roush nor any other chairman could shut down leadership funds controlled by lawmakers.
In contrast with all the promises of reform and multipoint agendas offered by Cox-Roush and the other candidates, Bitner's gauzy, low-key approach carried the day.
The announcement of his first-place finish in the initial round of voting elicited murmurs of surprise in the visitors' gallery, followed by a burst of applause.
One attendee called Bitner's successful race "a stealth candidacy."
Speaking on the sidelines after the vote, Bitner said he had "no hard feelings" about the rough and tumble race.
"I stayed on the high road. I don't tear people down to build myself up," he said.
The task ahead for Bitner and the RPOF is historic. The city of Tampa will host the 2012 Republican National Convention, and the national party will be looking to Florida to reverse the 2008 results and defeat President Barack Obama.
Florida's national standing was heightened on Friday when Sharon Day of Fort Lauderdale was elected co-chair of the RNC. She was greeted by a standing ovation at the RPOF meeting.
Gov. Rick Scott offered heartfelt thanks to party workers for the 2010 election victories and pledged, "We're going to do better in two years."
Building on grass-roots success from last November, Scott said he saw "a much bigger opportunity in fund-raising" for the 2012 election cycle.
"What we're going to be doing over the next two years will be fun. This state will clearly be a model for the rest of the country," he said.
In other action, Lenny Curry, chairman of the Duval County Republican Party, was elected vice chair of the RPOF.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or (772) 801-5341.