TEA Party Stirs Up Florida Election
Around the State
Targeting Republican lawmakers who raised taxes and green-lighted the "Train to Nowhere," the TEA Party of Florida has nearly 20 legislative candidates on the fall ballot.
"We're going after some of the big boys -- Dean Cannon, Chris Dorworth, Bryan Nelson and Steve Precourt -- because they voted for (Central Florida's billion-dollar) SunRail. They're on the hitlist," Doug Guetzloe, a consultant for the new TEA Party, said Friday morning.
But, by day's end, the TEAs included incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, on their hitlist, too.
The party itself has been targeted by other Tea groups, which have sued TEA (Taxed Enough Already) over use of the name. Their lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court.
Republican Party leaders call TEA a Democratic Party stalking horse, intentionally or unintentially designed to split Republican votes.
Guetzloe and TEA Party Chairman Frederic O'Neal reject that assertion.
"We find that insulting to Florida voters because Republican strategists are likening them to morons," Guetzloe said.
If the GOP's electoral calculus about conservative vote-splitting were correct, Democrat Kendrick Meek would be leading the three-way U.S. Senate race against independent Charlie Crist and Republican Marco Rubio, TEA officials say. In fact, Meek is running a distant third in the polls.
Citing "dismal" approval ratings of the Democratic and Republican parties, Guetzloe says TEA is tapping into an "anti-incumbent trend."
"With the advent of the TEA Party, all bets are off," he said. "We're the new Republican Party."
In less than a year, the TEA Party has attracted more candidates than Florida's other 30 "minor" parties combined. TEA's big push is in state House races, where it is fielding more than a dozen candidates in the Nov. 2 election.
Guetzloe said 65 aspiring candidates answered TEA's online questionnaire, and that the roster of candidates was developed from those responses. Designated candidates can receive party reimbursement for their filing fees, which are $1,782 in state House races.
The party reports having $250,000 in cash on hand.
"We have candidates running from the Panhandle to Key West," Guetzloe said.
Though the party said it did not systematically recruit candidates, TEA operatives did entice Marshall DeRosa, a Florida Atlantic University law professor, to run for the state Senate District 30 seat being vacated by Ted Deutch. DeRosa will face Democrat Maria Lorts Sachs and Republican Jeff Shapiro.
Debunking the notion that TEA candidates are Democrats in disguise, Guetzloe said the majority of the party hopefuls are former Republicans, with a few independents thrown in. DeRosa, a constitutional scholar, previously was considering a run for U.S. Senate on the Constitution Party ticket.
"There are no Democrats, as far as I know," Guetzloe said.
But O'Neal, an Orlando attorney who helped found the party on Aug. 14, 2009, also noted that the party "does not get involved in social issues." Officials say membership in their fledgling party stands at "around 300."
Stating that their platform is "representative of Tea Party values," TEA candidates focus on economic issues by adopting a three-point pledge of "political integrity, fiscal responsibility and less government."
John Foley, a TEA candidate running in House District 41, said incumbent Steve Precourt "has done a bad job of being conservative. The (SunRail project Precourt supported) is a catastrophe and won't serve people in the district."
Though two other Republicans are challenging Precourt in the Orlando area district, Foley was not content to sit back and let party bosses decide an intramural contest.
"Republicans essentially get to choose who the conservative voice is. It's the 'lesser of evils' in the primary," he said.
"If you're interested in putting the best person in office, then bring on the options," said Foley, a first-time candidate.
TEA officials figure to capitalize on name recognition. "TEA is universally known with 100 percent name identification," Guetzloe said.
That rankles the state's other Tea groups, which vehemently oppose the formation of any free-standing third party.
"We're not supportive of the concept of running candidates. We encourage people to get involved in their party -- whether they're Democrats, Republicans or independents -- and push their party toward the principles of fiscal conservatism," said Toby Hill, president of the Indian River County Tea Party.
"The Republican Party, being the conservative party, should embrace that," Hill said.
Guetzloe calls opposition by other Tea Party groups little more than sour grapes by Republican front men.
"We've sucked the air out of whatever they had in mind. They were paid GOP operatives, set up by shadowy Washington groups like Americans for Prosperity and they lost control."
"We're the anti-tax party," Guetzloe said.
Here's how the day ended, TEA-wise:
Look for TEAs trying to claim House seats in close races and against Republican leaders: as mentioned earlier, incoming Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park; Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, who has already received backing to be a future speaker; Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando; Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee; Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka; Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando; in Central Florida.
TEA Party candidates are also running in seats left open by retiring Republican House members -- Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale, Rep. Faye Culp of Tampa, Rep. Nick Thompson of Fort Myers and Rep. J. C. Zapata of Miami.
The GOP claims TEA Party candidates could undermine Republican attempts to knock off some House Democrats -- Rep. Debbie Boyd of Newberry, Rep. Janet Long of Seminole and Incoming House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West. A TEA Party candidate is also taking on Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, who does not have a Republican opponent.
RPOF Chairman John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, isn't buying the Guetzloe line.
"The recent flurry of last minute filings by so-called ‘TEA Party candidates’ looks awfully suspicious," Thrasher said in a prepared statement. "While a few TEA Party candidates across the state do have ties to the tea party movement, in the majority of instances, it appears that the Democrats have coordinated a dishonest attempt to hide phony candidates behind the name ‘tea party’ and to confuse voters who may be supportive of the tea party movement, effectively stealing votes from true conservative candidates and injuring the grassroots tea party movement as a whole."
Nancy Smith contributed to this story.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.