ORLANDO – In their first year trying to become a political force in Florida, the Tea Party found a candidate for Congress in an Orlando-based district, and put up an active grassroots campaign in a year when the term “Tea Party” reigned supreme.
Their candidate, Peg Dunmire, ended up losing the race for Florida’s 8th Congressional District. In a year when Republican voter turnout was heavy and the party scored record victories, Dunmire and the incumbent, Democrat Alan Grayson, lost to the GOP nominee, former state Sen. Dan Webster.
At the same time, the Florida Tea Party did score one big victory. Early on, this party devoted to conservative principles endorsed a little known businessman who was taking on what appeared to be a long shot bid for the governor’s office. Rick Scott was initially thought to be an underdog in the Republican primary, since party leaders had mostly coalesced around Attorney General Bill McCollum as their nominee. And even if Scott could somehow win the primary, the Democrats appeared ready for him with their own strong nominee — Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer.
Scott ended up defying the odds – and the odds makers’ predictions – by narrowly defeating both McCollum in the primary and Sink in the general. Today, the Tea Party is citing its early backing of Scott as a prime reason why they plan to stay united and keep building the party as a genuine third party movement in Florida.
And Dunmire has a special interest in the Tea Party’s future: she’s accepted the role of party leader from the outgoing chairman, Fred O’Neal. And Dunmire admits she has ambitious plans for the party’s future.
“I am now the new chairman of the Florida Tea Party, and I think there are several things we have to do as a party,” Dunmire said. “We need to reach out to all the Tea Party groups and make it clear we’re here to stay.”
The Florida Tea Party has, since the days when O’Neal first formed it, stood for conservative principles: a balanced federal budget, strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution, limiting the role and size of the federal government, and turning more decisions over to the states, not the feds. And while they’re actively recruiting candidates to run for office under the party’s banner, they’re not averse to endorsing someone from the two major parties that support their views. This year, that included Scott and Marco Rubio, the successful Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.
“We supported other candidates in the Republican primary and most of them won,” said Tea Party member Doug Guetzloe. “We were instrumental in backing Rick Scott in the primary when most of the party establishment was backing Bill McCollum.”
But Dunmire stressed this doesn’t mean the Tea Party will eventually fold and become a faction of the Florida Republican Party. This is one third party movement, she said, that’s here to stay.
“They’re welcome to join us,” she said of the Sunshine State’s registered Republicans. “But we are the Florida Tea Party. That means we’re organized to put up candidates. We want to identify and nurture and grow really good candidates. We need to put a structure in place where they can learn to be good candidates. We are going to hold all the candidates accountable if they’re representing the people of Florida.”
More specifically, Dunmire said she welcomes candidates who support the Tea Party’s agenda of lower taxation, elimination of state and federal budget debts, and opposition to the high speed rail and SunRail commuter rail projects.
SunRail is a 61-mile commuter train that would run from Volusia County to downtown Orlando, and then continue into Osceola County, ending at the Poinciana Industrial Park. The high speed train would run from Cocoa Beach to Orlando International Airport, then down to Walt Disney World, Lakeland, and Tampa. Both projects are meant to get motorists off congested highways like Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike and create more transportation options in a state where the car has long been king.
The Tea Party has been opposed to SunRail from day one, calling it a huge waste of taxpayer money that not enough commuters are going to end up riding.
“You don’t have to have high speed rail or a SunRail system,” Guetzloe said. “We do need a mass transportation system, but we need a bus hub system to get people from one place to the next, for people who don’t have cars. Commuter rail can’t do that.”
Guetzloe noted that ballot referendums aimed at raising taxes to fund new transportation systems lost in Osceola, Polk and Hillsborough counties in November – and Guetzloe’s group Ax The Tax was instrumental in fighting all three. He noted that Gov.-elect Scott has been a critic of SunRail and the high speed train and added, “I think Rick Scott has got the message.”
The Florida Tea Party also plans to build up its credibility after getting accused by some Republicans of being a front for Grayson. The theory was that Grayson had encouraged the Tea Party efforts – perhaps even helped the party financially – in the hopes that Dunmire would split and divide the conservative vote with Webster.
Dunmire has denied that charge from the beginning, and still does.
“We know we’re a legitimate party,” she said. “I want this to be successful. I’m a real student of organizations. You have to see how successful they are, and at the first of the year, we’ll be having organizational meetings.”
Grayson also said the notion that he encouraged Dunmire to run is ridiculous.
“It’s just another example of the right wing’s gift for making up plausible lies,” Grayson said. “I could care less which faction won. It doesn’t matter to me which faction of the Republican party employs the term Tea Party. What bothers me is the media were so willing to repeat this self-serving propagation. I didn’t give her (Dunmire) any money. Why should I? It was just the incessant drumbeat of ‘It’s alleged this, it’s alleged that.’ You’d think that after months and months of this, some facts would be tossed in.”
In fact, Grayson said the state’s GOP establishment clearly turned against the Florida Tea Party not for ideological reasons, but out of a sense of panic. The party had been hit by a well-publicized credit card scandal involving former state chairman Jim Greer, and was terrified that voters might actually view the Florida Tea Party as a legitimate alternative, he said.
“This is an utterly dysfunctional, corrupt organization – and I’m referring to the Republican Party of Florida,” Grayson said.
Dunmire said she plans to start building up the Florida Tea Party by dividing the state eight regions.
“I want to do it by region because regions are more manageable,” she said.
And she agreed with Grayson that during the campaign, the local media paid little or no attention to her efforts, so she has no interest in relying on those sources in the future.
“My experience is the media have ignored us, so we will develop our own media, and that’s also part of our strategy,” Dunmire said.