TALLAHASSEE — President Donald Trump’s promise to headline the Republican Party of Florida’s annual fundraiser has given it a much-needed financial and emotional boost going into 2020, even as the news has laid bare divisions within the state party’s leadership.
The party’s scramble to land a Trump visit culminated in a political victory for Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday and effectively left state GOP Chairman Joe Gruters with a title but no influence. The power play caps a monthslong effort by DeSantis to elbow the chairman out of power.
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It also ended the 24-hour drama that saw the party’s Statesman’s Dinner canceled due to a lack of interest, then rescheduled with a bang.
On Monday night, the party tweeted that it was canceling the Nov. 9 fundraiser. The announcement hit a party already reeling from internal shakeups and took many top officials by surprise.
One person blindsided by the tweet was DeSantis, whose team had explicitly instructed Gruters to hold off on sending a public notice that the event was canceled.
But the tweet went out anyway, just as DeSantis was personally reaching out to Trump to persuade the president to speak — and keep the event’s flubbed planning out of the public eye.
When DeSantis announced Trump’s Dec. 7 visit less than 24 hours later, it was Gruters’ turn to be surprised.
“The governor last night said, ‘If Joe is not going to f—ing listen, he will not be able to get anything on this,’” said one GOP consultant with knowledge of the process. Gruters “knew nothing this morning when this was announced.”
In fact, Gruters was calling members of the Florida GOP’s executive committee at 9 a.m Tuesday to do damage control on the canceled dinner — at the same time as DeSantis was taking the stage at a state Capitol press conference where he would announce Trump’s visit.
In a text message, Gruters dismissed the idea that he was out of the loop.
“This was the plan all along and I appreciate the governor for securing the president for what will be a very special evening,” Gruters told POLITICO.
He did not respond to questions about whether he knew the Trump announcement was coming prior to DeSantis’ remarks Tuesday morning.
White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley did not immediately respond to questions about the timeline of events. A DeSantis spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
When Gruters signed a contract in July to hold the Statesman’s Dinner at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, he had yet to line up a keynote speaker. In the months that followed, he couldn’t land his No. 1 pick: Trump.
“Joe said, ‘No big deal, I’m going to get Trump,’” said the GOP consultant. “He worked to get Trump for months, and sold tables to the grassroots based on that promise, but was unable to sell tables to lobbyists.”
About two weeks ago, it became clear the planning process was falling apart. Gruters asked DeSantis for help.
The governor’s office reached out to Washington. The White House told DeSantis that Trump wasn’t available Nov. 9, but he had two dates open in December, both of which were discussed Monday night.
On Monday, DeSantis chief of staff Shane Strum asked that the party not to cancel the Nov. 9 event. But the tweet was issued at 4:45 p.m., as DeSantis’ team was hashing out details with the White House.
“Shane was telling Gruters, saying, ‘Do not send it out yet,’” said the consultant familiar with the back-and-forth. “He said ‘hold on,’ but it went out anyway.”
After the news of Trump’s pending visit broke Tuesday morning, the Republican Party of Florida sent an email to members that heaped praise on DeSantis. The note came not from Gruters, but the party’s executive director, Peter O’Rourke.
“Under the great leadership of Governor DeSantis, we will secure victory for the President and will rally support for all our GOP candidates on the ballot,” O’Rourke wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO. “Florida is an important state and we will work together with Governor DeSantis to ensure that we Republicans are successful in delivering the necessary outcomes to the great benefit of Florida and our country.”