Florida GOP Chairman Joe Gruters may be in the unusual position of campaigning for Democratic support after attracting a primary challenger in his race for the state Senate and a written candidate may not qualify.
Republican Michael Johnson qualified Friday to run against Gruters in Senate District 22, which includes all of Sarasota County and part of Manatee County.
Whether Johnson can mount much of a campaign remains to be seen. He lives in Seminole County in the Orlando area, about 150 miles from District 22, and appears to be running mostly because he’s upset with the way Gruters handled a complaint he filed with the GOP of Florida regarding the Seminole GOP.
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But Johnson could be a magnet for disgruntled Gruters voters, especially Democrats. Democrats can vote in the August GOP primary race if no Democratic or Registered candidate qualifies to run in District 22. Under state election law, any voter living in a district can vote during a primary race if the primary will decide the election.
Robert Kaplan ran as a write-in candidate in District 22, but may not have qualified. Qualifying ended Friday at noon, and Kaplan is not listed as having qualified on the state Division of Elections website.
Kaplan said Friday night that he was told by state officials this week that he made a mistake on the check for $1,187.88 he sent to pay the qualifying fee, and that Nor had he had his financial disclosure form notarized. He said he corrected the errors and sent a package with the correct information via UPS on Thursday, and received confirmation that it had arrived by noon on Friday.
Kaplan hopes the state just hasn’t processed its qualifying paperwork and updated the website yet, and it will end up on the ballot.
“We have to sit still and be calm and calm,” he said. “That’s what I try to do.”
But the Florida State Department, which oversees the Elections Division, posted on Twitter late Friday that “all qualifying paperwork has been processed” and said its website has the unofficial list of those who stood. qualified. Kaplan was no longer listed as a candidate on the website. The Elections Division has until June 24 to officially certify qualified candidates.
If Kaplan fails to qualify, it could complicate Gruters’ re-election bid. Gruters, a Sarasota native seeking a second term in the Senate, could be an attractive target for Democrats because of his status as one of Florida’s most prominent and partisan Republicans. Not only does Gruters chair the Florida GOP, but he served as co-chair of former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign in Florida.
Democrats could flock to Johnson to try to send a message to Gruters and the Florida GOP. Johnson would also need to remove some GOP support from Gruters in a district that favors Republicans.
It’s not clear, however, that Democrats would be happier to have Johnson represent them than Gruters. Johnson is a GOP activist involved with his local party and a group called Grassroots for America, which states on its website that he challenged mask mandates and critical race theory in schools and “uncovered numerous frauds elections in Seminole County”.
Gruters noted in an interview that he has worked on issues “we all agree on” such as supporting the foster care system and protecting Sarasota County school funding.
“It’s going to be an interesting race because it’s basically going to be the Democrats controlling my future,” Gruters said. “And the question they have to ask themselves is do they want a local leader who has fought for our community on issues like trying to protect our local schools’ funding, our local community organizations‘ funding and so on, or do they want a foreigner who has probably never visited Sarasota and who is obviously unhappy?”
Johnson could not be reached for comment. He said in an email to Gruters that he plans to use $100,000 of his own money for the campaign.
“It’s going to be fun,” Johnson wrote in the email, which Gruters shared with the Herald-Tribune. “Millions of Republicans in this state despise you and your stupidity.”
Democrats may disagree with him on many issues, but Gruters said “compared to a guy who’s from out of town and is obviously a sad, angry, disgruntled person, I hope they’ll give me the green light.”
Follow Herald-Tribune political editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be contacted at [email protected]