Christian Ziegler says he shouldn’t be underestimated.
The 33-year-old Sarasota Republican committeeman is widely viewed as an underdog in the race to become the Republican Party of Florida’s next chairman, but Ziegler says that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Ziegler is so serious about becoming the party’s next chairman that he pulled up to Enterprise last month, rented a car and began a cross-state trek to meet with party faithful.
Five thousand miles and a few weeks later, Ziegler still has a pep in his step. While many would be exhausted from the nonstop drive around a state that takes more than 12 hours top to bottom, Ziegler is just as pumped as ever about his political future.
He’s been meeting with local committeemen and women who say they are ready to go to bat for him come the party’s election in January.
Some of those committeemen and women, however, have already publicly endorsed Ziegler’s opponent, incumbent chairman Blaise Ingoglia for the job. While some might view that as a blow to his campaign, Ziegler says not to pay endorsements any mind.
“I’ve encouraged them not to [publicly endorse me],” he told Sunshine State News. “It’s a secret ballot vote.”
In the long run, he says those endorsements don’t matter.
“If endorsements decided elections, then Leslie Dougher would have been re-elected and Donald Trump wouldn’t [have been] our nominee,” Ziegler said. “There are a lot of people on his list that say ‘The chairman is putting pressure on me.’ Every time he releases lists of endorsements, there’s a good number of people who I think I will get their vote.”
Ingoglia has teased out the endorsement of some of the biggest names in Florida politics. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and a handful of Republican congressmen have all said they support him for chair.
Yet in spite of what looks like an evident series of significant disadvantages, Ziegler has a history in politics which he says has helped him carve his own path of success in the Republican Party.
Ziegler told SSN he wasn’t a kid who grew up constantly interested in politics. As a teenager, he wanted to go to the Naval Academy.
Politics was something he just happened to stumble into one weekend when he was 15.
Ziegler was living in Georgia at the time and hopped on the bus of a local congressman who was out campaigning in Atlanta. His mom suggested it and Ziegler said yes.
He didn’t think much about who the guy was -- Ziegler was 15, after all.
That candidate turned out to be Newt Gingrich, one of Georgia’s longtime congressmen who served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995-1999.
“I was the token kid standing next to him,” Ziegler said about the campaign.
That one weekend of campaigning was the match that lit a fire for Ziegler’s passion for politics. Once he went to college at Florida State University, he studied criminal justice and then double-majored in political science.
Ziegler got a job in the Florida House as a paid intern in 2005, working inside the state Capitol, watching Florida’s laws get made and rubbing shoulders with legislators.
While he was in Tallahassee, Ziegler got the call for a job that would vastly alter his former aspirations of becoming a Naval officer. It was from Joe Gruters, and he wanted Ziegler to head to Sarasota to work for Vern Buchanan’s first congressional campaign.
He started out as a groundling, knocking on doors and spreading the good word of the Buchanan name to all who would hear it.
Ziegler had officially caught the political bug working in Buchanan’s 2006 race.
“I became Vern’s right-hand guy,” he told SSN.
That campaign turned out to be costly -- Buchanan dumped $5 million of his own money into the race which turned out to be the most expensive House race in 2006.
Ziegler said the time the team spent making rounds with voters paid off -- and Buchanan won by 369 votes.
Fresh off a win, Ziegler packed his bags and headed to D.C. where he worked as Buchanan’s digital director. After four years, he left the office to join the private sector, working for a startup company.
But Ziegler couldn’t shake the political fever. In 2012, he ran for state committeeman. Competition was fierce and Ziegler, not even 30 years old, was not who many would consider a frontrunner for the job.
“No one thought I had a chance,” he said. “The papers endorsed some of my opponents.”
In the end, Ziegler came out on top, using the skills he used at Buchanan’s office to knock out his opponents with a heavy digital presence.
“I came out winning because I hustled,” he said.
Ziegler’s fire for politics has kept on burning. As Sarasota Republican committeeman, Ziegler has worked with local, statewide and even national candidates to help them navigate Florida’s complex political culture. Ziegler has close ties with national politicians like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and President-elect Donald Trump.
Ultimately, Ziegler said none of what he has done in politics has been to advance his own agenda or scale a mountain of political positions just to say he did it.
“Everyone has a reason for getting in politics,” he told SSN. “A lot of people do it to work their way up the ladder. That’s not my style...I do stuff because I actually believe in it.”
Ziegler’s belief in the GOP is what he says has driven him to run for RPOF chair, a crucial job for one of the the hottest places for politics in the country.
But Ziegler sees a broken party, one that’s been fractured by division in recent years.
The party’s last election in 2015 caused a rift among party members, Gov. Rick Scott and Senate Republicans, all of whom who now fundraise separately after Scott’s hand-picked chair, Leslie Dougher, was blown out by Ingoglia. Party insiders say the RPOF has tried to make amends with the governor, but to no avail.
That, Ziegler says, is a big problem.
“You can only maximize your success if you get as many people as possible involved,” he said, adding he’s close enough to the governor to bring him back into the party fold.
“I have a good relationship with the governor and I’m not going to apologize for it,” he said. But that doesn’t make him Scott’s puppet -- no way, no how.
“I am not controlled by anyone,” he said. “I will leverage [that relationship] in the best interest of the party.”
Both Ingoglia and Ziegler say they are running on a grassroots strategy.
"Two years ago, when I announced I was running for RPOF Chairman, I did so after talking to many of you about the importance of emphasizing the grassroots in our elections and our party,” Ingoglia wrote in an email to executive committee members around the state. “Your support launched us on an incredible journey that included a lot of lofty goals and expectations.”
Ziegler says only he has what it truly takes to unify the party. He’d even give up his full-time job to focus on the party, while Ingoglia is tied to a state representative position and a business -- two things he says are distractions for the long-term success of the RPOF.
“It’s too hard. At every moment of every day, you’re not focusing,” he said, calling himself a unifier who would make the party his full-time priority.
Not everything is doom and gloom for the state GOP, which saw huge waves of achievement during this year's election cycle. Ziegler doesn't deny that, but sees a party already full of a winning formula, but says there is potential success still ripe for the picking.
“My message to everyone is ... I want to make it the model state party [around the country,]” he explained. “I want it as strong as possible.”