by David Silverberg
On Dec. 5, while much of the political world was focusing on the imminent results of the Georgia Senate runoff election, in Florida forces loyal to Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again (MAGA) ideology launched an attempt to take over the state Republican Party at the county level.
Many attempts succeeded—and nowhere more so than in Collier and Lee counties.
As a result, the Florida Republican Party appears to be metamorphosing into the Trump-MAGA Party going into 2023, which was the activists’ aim.
This was not a coup; there was no violence, rules were not broken and votes took place as scheduled in local party executive committees throughout Florida.
It was—and is—however, a determined effort by a Trumpist faction to implant its adherents and take control of the Party machinery. In many cases non-MAGA Republicans, despite long records of Party activism, conservative beliefs, and indeed, support for Donald Trump, were labeled as Republicans in Name Only (RINOs) or more ominously as “enemies” and even “traitors.”
This intra-party contest could perhaps best be described as an “attack-election” using electoral means to pursue narrow ends among a very limited electorate.
What does this mean for Florida’s Republican Party? What does it mean for Republicans nationally and for the nation as a whole as it begins a presidential election cycle? What does it mean for Donald Trump and his opponent, sitting Gov. Ron DeSantis? Most of all, is this an indication of things to come both within the state and nationally?
Collier County was illustrative of the means, methods and motivation for what took place—and is taking place—state-wide.
The Collier County case
The precursor to the Collier County attack-election came on Nov. 13 when Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III posted a screed to Facebook.
At that point it looked like Democrats might retain the US House of Representatives since a handful of races remained undecided.
“In case you’re not paying attention in the last two days….It’s over !!!!There is not going to be a 2024 election, Forget Trump…. Forget DeSantis and it’s not because there are more socialist in our country…. it is because of blatant theft of our electoral process… they are stealing every necessary seat right in front of our eyes, worse than 2020,” Oakes wrote. “They will now be taking over the house for absolute and full control … meanwhile our disgraceful Republicans are sitting on their hands! We are the majority! The globalist run main stream media has duped us into believing that we are not!”
For those unfamiliar with Oakes, he is an outspokenly conservative farmer, grocer and Trump activist. He was elected a state Republican committeeman in 2020 and through his Citizens Awake Now Political Action Committee funded and supported the successful 2022 election campaigns of MAGA candidates for county commission and board of education.
Despite his election successes, Oakes was displeased with the results of the 2022 midterms. Oakes’ screed is worth quoting at length because it reveals the attitude and perceptions that drove the attack-election. (Punctuation, capitalization, syntax and spacing are unchanged from the original.)
“It’s sickening how everyone is just sitting back waiting for the cabal to complete the full takeover of our country with this blatant and massive election fraud ! It’s like WW2 Jews waiting around, hoping things get better. “Do we not understand this is the final straw? If we don’t stand up now and take whatever measures are necessary our Republic is over… actually it is over! “I’m sickened by all this bickering between the people in our party arguing about Donald Trump and Ron Desantis it’s a distraction! “There is only one enemy the globalist cabal using massive voter fraud right in front of our noses!so called Republicans are not doing a damn thing about it..no one is! “We need a GIANT call to action for EVERY America First Republican in office to stand up… and for the candidates that have been beaten by fraud, NOT to concede and demand an immediate in person hand count with observers of both parties choices. This is insane what is happening. Like in the Bible, we are being mocked by evil forces (the left) and they are going to tell us come Monday, sorry, you lost now go away or take it to court—and we know how that ends. “WE THE PEOPLE must BOLDLY identify the enemy and NAME them! Make lists! Speak plainly and call them out as being “The enemies of the free people of “these” United States. Get others to completely understand that these are not politician and was likely s, but rather enemies to our freedoms!”
Oakes’ local discontent mirrored that of former White House advisor Steve Bannon, who has long called for a “village-by-village” campaign on behalf of MAGAism. It was also shared by fellow Trumpers.
Ultimately Republicans won the House, if with a narrower majority than the party faithful preferred.
On Dec. 5, the Collier County Republican Executive Committee (CCREC) was scheduled to hold its organizational meeting and election at 6:00 pm that evening. This meeting was restricted to Republican Party members. The public and media were excluded.
But before the meeting, fractures in the local Republican Party between MAGAs and non-MAGAs became glaringly and contentiously apparent in dueling e-mails and personal attacks.
Oakes and other MAGA activists prepared a slate of candidates and two messages, one positively endorsing challengers and another, denouncing incumbents. The two messages were sent out twice on Sunday, Dec. 4, and once at 11:45 am on Monday, Dec. 5, all under Oakes’ name, photo and logo.
The positive endorsement message began: “When tyranny becomes law, it is the duty of We the People to alter or abolish it. Like our Founding Fathers, the American people have endured many abuses. As Republicans, it is our responsibility to begin exercising our constitutionally protected rights and take back our country! Our first step is to elect five America First conservatives to the Collier County Republican Executive Committee (CCREC) Board… .”
The message continued: “…we must elect Nick Lichter (Chairman), Dan Cook (Vice-Chairman), Lisa Johnson (Treasurer), and John Krol (Assistant Treasurer) to the Executive Board.”
It asserted: “These patriots will boldly stand against the enemies of freedom, and they will unite the Republican Party by leading with courage and conviction. For far too long and at every level of government, the CCREC has allowed celebrity politicians and self-seeking grifters in Washington DC, Tallahassee, Collier County, and on the School Board to govern in the wrong direction.”
According to his message, Oakes’ endorsed candidates had agreed to govern according to a long list of principles and practices.
Fifteen minutes after the initial endorsements, the second e-mail went out under Oakes’ logo, photo and name slamming opponents with detailed, in-depth critiques of their personalities and performance.
“Kristina Heuser is not the right person for Chairperson,” was one headline in the message, accusing the aspirng CCREC chair of ethical lapses. “Yvette Benarroch is too divisive to serve” as vice chair, stated another headline, accusing her of being “combative and divisive” and “oftentimes disrespectful to the Chairman.” A third headline stated: “Nanette Rivera has a bad track record as Treasurer.”
The message concluded: “We, as a collective Party, that wants to bring back the America First Agenda MUST stand Up and REFUSE to elect these candidates to our Collier County Republican Executive Committee Executive Board!”
Seven minutes after that Oakes sent another message, this time without the header: “Some selected members of our REC [Republican Executive Committee] have been sent two emails that appear to be from me…they are not!” it stated.
“I am extremely disappointed that [State Committee member] JoAnn [DeBartolo] and Tom [Ravana], [local conservative, pro-Trump Republican activists] took it upon themselves to attach my picture and name to a hit piece email on Kristina Heuser, Yvette Benarroch and Nanette Rivera.
“While it is true that I am not endorsing any of the above candidates… I would NEVER have sent out a hit piece! There is already way too much drama within our REC, I would never add fuel to the fire.”
In the same message Oakes also accused DeBartolo of deliberately omitting his endorsement of incumbent Kathi Meo as secretary.
Oakes told The Paradise Progressive in a telephone interview that neither e-mail came from his personal e-mail address and “I was very upset when they put my name on that second e-mail.” Further, “some of those people were good people who shouldn’t have been trashed.”
Ravana, one of the two people who Oakes stated was responsible for sending out the e-mails, has stated in his turn that Oakes was well aware of the contents and wording of the second message and knowingly approved it prior to its being sent.
At 11:00 am on Sunday, Dec. 4, Oakes texted several people about the message, saying: “It looks very good…well put together…where do I get the list to send it out to everyone?”
That evening Republicans gathered at the Naples Area Board of Realtors building. Present were sitting elected officials Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-27-Naples), newly elected president of the Florida Senate, state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-81-Naples), state Rep. Lauren Melo (R-82-East Collier) Collier County Commissioner Bill McDaniel (R-District 5), and incoming Commissioner Daniel Kowal (R-District 4).
During the discussion McDaniel nominated Heuser for chair.
Despite that endorsement and other support for the incumbents, when the voting was held, the MAGA slate swept the balloting.
The victories gave Oakes a 2022 trifecta: his endorsed candidates now sit on two seats of a five seat Collier County Board of Commissioners, three seats on the five-seat county Board of Education and all official seats of the CCREC.
Not only did the midterms and CCREC election result in a near-completely MAGA Collier County, they made Oakes its de facto political boss. He had a far more successful record of endorsements than Donald Trump had nationwide in the congressional midterms.
Oakes doesn’t see himself as a boss, however. “I did help facilitate America First candidates to get exposure,” he told The Paradise Progressive. “I was helpful in vetting people. Yeah, I helped a lot but really, the people spoke and they spoke overwhelmingly.”
A near coin-toss in Lee County
In Lee County the outcome was not nearly as clear and decisive, as detailed by reporter Jacob Ogles on the newssite, Florida Politics.
On Dec. 11, three candidates contended for Lee County Republican Chair, which was being vacated by Jonathan Martin, who was just elected to the state Senate from the 33rd District.
One contender was Andrew Sund, president of the Cape Coral Republican Club. The second was Missi Lastra, former president of Lee Republican Women of Cape Coral and a regional field director for the Trump campaign. The third was Michael Thompson, a long-time conservative activist, founder of a conservative website and fervent Trumper from eastern Lee County.
Thompson won the largest share of votes (88) on the first ballot compared to Sund’s 71 and Lastra’s 36 but not enough for a majority.
In the second round, Lastra endorsed Sund but the tally deadlocked at 96 to 96. According to Ogles’ account, members debated whether to flip a coin for a winner or hold another vote and decided to vote again.
On the third ballot, one Sund supporter gave up a vote and Thompson won by a single ballot, 96 to 95.
Prior to the election Thompson called for a shakeup of the Party. “We have no committees available for volunteers to work on, we have a tired board who want to keep things the same and the two sides are trying to figure out the direction the REC will go moving forward,” he told Florida Politics.
Thompson’s election was not universally welcomed. The vote outcome was “a dark day for the future of the Lee GOP,” said state Rep. Spencer Roach (R-76-Fort Myers), a staunchly conservative representative.
The reaction to his statement was emblematic of the tenor of the executive committee races.
“Apparently Spencer Roach has just jumped the proverbial shark and is now a full-on establishment RINO,” posted a MAGA supporter named Ragnar Danneskjöld on Facebook. “He really doesn’t like it that you ‘holocaust deniers’ (aka America First folks) won the Lee county REC . There has always been doubts as to his ‘conservative’ bonafides, now he’s let us all know the real Roach. That’s one of the benefits to the America First movement…these RINOs just have to expose themselves, like moths to a flame, or bugs to a roach motel.”
Flynn defeat in Sarasota and other races
In Sarasota County former national security advisor and lieutenant general Michael Flynn, a resident of Englewood, guided the attempted takeover. Here, the MAGA drive failed.
It was, however, a close-run thing. Flynn backed Conni Brunni, a MAGA Trump activist for Republican Party chair. She lost by a mere 33 votes to Jack Brill, 57, the sitting chairman who has been active in Republican politics since he was 17 and who was endorsed by most Republican county officials.
The defeat was ironic because Flynn had made local action a keystone of his message to fellow MAGA believers, telling them that “Local Action = National Impact.” After moving to Englewood last year, he volunteered as a precinct captain and involved himself in the county Republican executive committee. He is widely seen in MAGA circles as a master strategist in light of his brief service in the Trump administration and his key role in trying to overturn the 2020 election.
In other counties, MAGA candidates succeeded. In Alachua County near Gainesville, Tim Marden, a Newberry city commissioner and fervent John Birch Society member, was elected county Party chairman by two votes.
In Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, Dana Galen, who characterizes herself as “a strict constitutionalist and America First Republican,” won her election for county chair.
In Lake County, west of Orlando, Anthony Sabatini won as chair of the REC, ousting incumbent Walter Price.
“It’s time to make the State and National GOP a true party of the grassroots and the America-First movement,” Sabatini tweeted after his election. “And that starts right here in Lake County.”
Other Republican county executive committee elections will be taking place in the days ahead.
Analysis: What it means and where it’s going
To partisans of any political organization or cause, the opposition always seems to have all the advantages. They always appear disciplined, organized, united and crafty. One’s own side, by contrast, always seems fractious, contentious and disorganized.
Opponents of this year’s Florida MAGA maneuver see a diabolically sinister plot unfolding. For many MAGAs, though, the executive committee election results were hairsbreadth victories in the face of long odds, numerous mistakes, and fierce RINO opposition
That said, the attempted MAGA takeover of local Florida Republican executive committees is certainly an effort guided by common goals and a common ideology even if not executed with military-style precision or always successful results.
One of the most striking elements of the MAGA maneuver is its attack on people who might otherwise be regarded as loyal Trumpers and deeply committed conservatives, the so-called RINOs. As in any ideological movement, the believers’ fiercest hatred is directed at those who supposedly know the truth but choose to ignore it; the heretics, rogues and apostates.
To an outside observer, however, in this case the supposed RINOs under attack seem like fanatics under fanatical attack by other fanatics for supposedly insufficient fanaticism.
The MAGA maneuver and its success to date raise two political questions for the future. One is practical and immediate. The other is principled and long term.
Practicality: The MAGA maneuver and the presidential race
Oakes may regard the rivalry between former President Donald Trump and sitting Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) as a mere “distraction” but in fact it is fundamental to the political future locally, statewide and nationally.
If viewed through the prism of that 2024 presidential rivalry then the MAGA maneuver is clearly a Trump strike against DeSantis.
Capturing county Party executive committees may not be a decisive blow but it will certainly make DeSantis’ presidential effort a lot harder. His campaign will have to slog through county after county to get the state united behind him and it may not succeed if the MAGA committeepeople stay committed to Trump’s nomination.
It seems unlikely that DeSantis could lose his own state two years hence, but there’s no end to the mischief that could be made by grassroots Trump partisans, especially if they’re in control of the Party machinery throughout Florida.
That, of course, could affect the outcome of the Republican nominating process nationally and the ultimate 2024 general election contest.
What is more, the 2022 election results, the lack of a “red wave” and the Republican failure to take the Senate, seems to indicate that the majority of Americans reject MAGAism and that it’s a losing proposition at the polls and would be so in 2024.
Principle: MAGAism, constitutionalism and democracy
The principles put forth by “America First” candidates ostensibly include supporting the US Constitution and accurately counting elections.
As an example of this, two of the principles listed in the Collier County REC endorsements included commitments to “Hold elected representatives accountable for their unconstitutional actions” and “Lead Florida’s 67 Republican Executive Committees by passing meaningful resolutions – instructing our elected representatives to fulfill their oaths to the Constitution.”
All this is well and good. However, overall the MAGA movement remains in service to Donald Trump and Trump has overtly called for termination of the Constitution. MAGA partisans remain supportive of the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 that tried to overthrow the US government and they repeat Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
The bottom line is that as long as MAGAism is devoted to Trump it is committed to unconstitutionality, untruth and autocracy.
Can MAGAism exist without Trump? It’s the dilemma faced by every political movement ever launched by a single, charismatic leader. So far, the answer seems to be “no.” Today, MAGAism is Trumpism.
From obscurity to autocracy
Ordinarily, elections to party executive committees are very obscure contests, the focus only of a handful of party activists and politicians.
But in light of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the ongoing overall threat to democracy, the public needs to pay attention to this year’s attempted takeover of the Florida Republican Party by MAGA forces.
After all, as history has shown, sometimes what starts with a handful of people in the back of a beer hall can metastasize into something much bigger, much badder and much, much more dangerous.
Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published on December 15, 2022.