With Senate Race, Be Mindful of Consequences

Under The Hood

Sen. Joe Gruters found himself in an unusual position this election cycle. The last-minute entry of a Republican primary opponent landed the two-term Senator in an open primary. For most incumbents, this wouldn’t be so bad. But since Gruters serves as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, he lives with a target on his back.

Voters throughout Senate District 22 will now have the chance to vote in the GOP primary, even Democrats, independents and members of third parties. That’s thanks to a voter-approved provision of the constitution that says if an election will decide the ultimate office holder, everyone has a voice. And for once, there was no write-in candidate filing at the last second to close the election.

But who is this last-minute opponent? Michael Johnson for the past several years has lived in a house in Seminole County that he shares with his son. He said he’s long been interested in moving to Sarasota, so might as well show up and rent a villa, then run for state Senate.

While Johnson has done little press since filing, I spoke to him this week. I must say I was somewhat surprised to learn he seemed fairly well-versed in the legislative process, relatively down-to-earth and holding a moderate posture— at least as he runs in an open election.

But there’s a fact I just can’t get over. This man is running for the wrong reasons, and voters need to consider that when they cast their vote. Johnson, a member of the group Grassroots For America, has been part of a Seminole-based effort to take over the Republican Executive Committee up there. When the group tried to call a special meeting to replace all local officers, the sitting leadership had a problem and ruled the mutiny out of order. Then they filed a grievance with the state party. Yes, the one Gruters chairs. Gruters sided with the local party leaders. So Johnson came down here to challenge Gruters for his Senate seat.

Let’s address the grievance itself. It seems entirely reasonable local leaders would react poorly to new members citing obscure rules to cut short their elected terms. But even if Johnson’s gripe with the party were legitimate, and he certainly feels it is, the avenue to challenge that is within the party. Going after Gruters’ Senate seat makes as much sense as suing his accounting firm for a problem with how he runs the Republican Party.

But more important to voters, the job of Senator holds serious responsibility. There are only 40 people in Florida with a say on the budgeting of $112 billion to various agencies, governments and partner nonprofits.

Democrats and even some left-leaning independents may feel tempted to vote against Gruters this year. He’s closely allied with Donald Trump and supported some divisive parts of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda, including on a few votes I and other suspect he would have resisted if not for his position in the party. 

But remember, the alternative in the election is someone who has pushed for more extremist elements to take over the party. This makes me suspect on whether he would be an independent voice or offer an ear to those well to the right of Gruters.

When asked at Tiger Bay to discuss what he would do to Sarasota’s vital nonprofit sector, he did not name one and described the entire world as somewhat suspect, raising concern over whether many nonprofits are crooked. But most are not. Fiscal watchdogs are welcome in Tallahassee, but nonprofits as an industry do not deserve this disdain.

Gruters always prioritizes the needs of the community and its nonprofits when he serves in Tallahassee, and he’s incredibly effective at passing legislation. It’s that ability to work with sitting leaders that seems to have driven Johnson into the race, a supposed catering to the elites. A vote to embarrass Republicans by defeating Gruters would perhaps deliver fleeting excitement, but elect a senator for four years who just moved the region to run on a partisan complaint.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ MEDIA.

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