Florida Fakers? GOP Cries Foul Over 20 Tea Party Candidates

June 21, 2010 10:35 a.m.

Fearing that even marginal voter preferences for tea party candidates could spell doom in November, Republicans now claim that the dozen or more Florida Tea Party candidates running for statehouse seats are part of some Sunshine State shenanigans.

In the meantime, however, the tea partiers want the U.S. attorney to investigate claims that tea party candidates are being intimidated and threatened. The Democrats, meanwhile, swear they have nothing to do with the Tea Party candidates, even though at least 3 of them were once registered to vote as members of the Democratic Party.

It’s an old-fashioned whodunit, fueled, in part, by the mysterious candidacy of Democratic Senate nominee Alvin Greene in South Carolina and the Tea Party of Nevada candidate who tea party activists there say is a faker.

Let’s break it down.Republicans questioned the legitimacy of Fred O’Neal’s Florida Tea Party for months, with tea party activists filing a lawsuit suggesting that, as a former Democrat himself, O’Neal is only fronting candidates as spoilers for the GOP. O’Neal himself filed to try to protect the Tea Party name with a copyright claim. Now the GOP says it’s “suspicious” and charges the candidates are “phony.”

Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for the Florida Republicans, said the GOP is adding up the evidence — five candidates in their 20s, who in some cases live hours from the districts in which they are seeking office, with little voting history.

“A lot of them are just out of college, who don’t actually live close to the districts they filed to run in,” Betta told TPMDC. “Who are these candidates who have come out of the blue? It really seems in our opinion to be something certainly different than the grassroots tea party movement.”

O’Neal says that’s not the case, and organizers within his Tea Party say they are trying to build the party with candidates across the state. He said he recruited people he knew, friends of friends and even his own stepson in an effort to boost the Tea Party this fall. The main reason for running, he said, was to oust candidates who supported a rail system in central Florida. The Tea Party is helping pay the $1,800 in filing fees for their candidates.

O’Neal told me in an interview today that the candidates mounting third-party challenges have been threatened for wading into the race and, in one case, terminated from his job. Raul Pantoja, a sound operator for a radio station, was fired today from his job at WEUS 810 AM.

He was recruited to run by Florida Tea Party official GOP consultant Doug Guetzloe, who hosts a program on the station. (Guetzloe also is named in the lawsuit.)

WEUS co-owner Carl Como told me that he was upset that he wasn’t notified of Pantoja’s candidacy and that he’s worried it would violate “strict” FCC rules about giving equal time to candidates. (At one point in our interview he cited the “Fairness doctrine,” which does not exist.) He said Pantoja was a subcontractor employed 15 hours per week or less.

Pantoja, 26, said it’s a 90 minute to 2-hour drive to the district where he’s running and that his boss suggested before firing him it was unethical for him to run in a district where he does not live.

Guetzloe said the party would take care of the campaigning for Pantoja when he can’t make the drive. Pantoja said he’s a conservative who was left behind by the Republican party on fiscal issues. “I’m just going to do the best I can,” he said.

Another candidate received a death threat, while others were tossed from the ballot due to paperwork problems, O’Neal said.

“I hope the Republicans are really proud of themselves. The payback process has started,” he said, adding that the Tea Party is planning to file a claim with the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“This is outrageous stuff,” added Guetzloe. “It’s hard to believe that we live in a country that if anyone expresses free speech or wants to run for office they’re penalized.”

O’Neal said his candidates are all officially members of the Tea Party now, despite previous affiliations with either major party. He said there is “no litmus test” but that most in the party are fiscally conservative and want limited government. Social issues aren’t a major factor, he said.

A Democratic source in Florida told TPMDC that the Republicans are only making their claims because the GOP fronted Green Party candidates during the last election cycle. The source pointed out that Florida GOP chairman John Thrasher was once a Democrat as well.

Republican spokeswoman Betta said the party believes third party candidates “can peel away” anywhere from three to five percentage points in a general election.

In addition to the 16 state House races, the Tea Party is fielding three Congressional candidates including a challenge to Rep. Alan Grayson (D) and a candidate in the Agriculture Commissioner race that pits Rep. Adam Putnam (R) against former Democratic party chairman Scott Maddox (D).

Betta pointed to to the agriculture race as one example of something smelling fishy. Ira Chester, the Tea Party candidate, previously donated to Maddox and other Democratic candidates.

The Republicans say they think O’Neal is trying to confuse voters, “effectively stealing votes from true conservative candidates and injuring the grassroots tea party movement as a whole.”

Democrats use the tea party warfare to needle the already imperiled Florida Republican Party. “It just doesn’t hold up,” said Florida Democrats’ spokesman Eric Jotkoff. “The IRS and FBI might be coming after the Republican Party of Florida but the black helicopters are not coming for him. Thrasher can take off his tinfoil hat and help his own candidates rather than making ridiculous allegations.”

Robin Stublen, a tea party activist in Punta Gorda, south of Sarasota, told TPMDC today that it’s unlikely there is any coordinated effort at work.

“I know that there are those out there who want to paint this as some vast conspiracy, and it very well may be just that, but the bottom line is if you meet the criteria then you are a candidate,” Stublen said. “Anyone can run, that’s the great thing about our country.”

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