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Florida Republicans Try to Oust GOP Chair Amid Rape Probe

Florida Republicans, openly worried that a rape allegation against their GOP chair could threaten the party’s dominance heading into the 2024 election, are moving quickly to extinguish it.

A growing chorus of top elected officials in recent days have called on GOP Chair Christian Ziegler to step down amid allegations that he raped a woman who had been sexually involved with both him and his wife, Bridget Ziegler, last year. Bridget Ziegler is a close ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sarasota County school board member who co-founded the conservative Moms for Liberty, though she is no longer with the group.

Party leaders are concerned that Ziegler’s refusal to step down could hurt them ahead of an election cycle that includes the presidential race, a high-profile Senate contest and control of Congress as well as the Florida Legislature.

“He’s living in denial,” said one Florida Republican familiar with the thinking of GOP leaders but who was not authorized to talk publicly. “This is unsustainable. He thinks he can do what (former President Donald) Trump does. … He doesn’t understand that the Republican Party of Florida supports traditional family values.”

On Wednesday, multiple Republican officials said that there was enough party members to trigger a meeting in Orlando later this month to consider disciplining Ziegler. The move ramps up pressure on Ziegler — who has denied wrongdoing — to step down.

Ziegler did not respond to a request for comment.

The push to discipline or remove Ziegler is clearly intended to limit damage heading into the 2024 primaries and general election. The state party relies heavily on donations steered to it from legislative leaders, who have also called on Ziegler to resign from his paid post.

“I think when you have an investigation of crimes of this magnitude, I think that the mission has to come first,” DeSantis said earlier this week. “It is not helpful to the mission to have this hanging over his head. … I think most people acknowledge it’s an untenable situation.”

Ziegler is under investigation for an allegation of rape following an Oct. 2 encounter with a woman he’d known for more than two decades. Ziegler and his wife had initially tried to arrange a meeting with the victim, but the woman backed out when she found out Bridget Ziegler could no longer make it.

Ziegler went to her house anyway and later told police the two had consensual sex. But the woman told a friend and police that she was intoxicated and unable to consent, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

DeSantis — who is spending most of his time campaigning for president — was among the first to call for Ziegler to resign. It took a few days, however, for other high-profile GOP politicians in Florida to follow suit. But not all of them are in agreement.

Trump ally U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is one of the few Republicans who has urged his party to wait for more information before acting. Gaetz cited his own history with the legal system when news leaked that he was under investigation following allegations of sex trafficking. Federal prosecutors never filed charges.

“Given my experience, I tend to wait for the facts to come out before rendering judgment,” Gaetz said through a statement provided by his office.

But many Florida Republicans say it’s time for Ziegler to go. GOP House Speaker Paul Renner, responding to questions from reporters in Tallahassee, said this week he doubted Ziegler could manage his role overseeing the party while defending himself against the allegations.

“Let’s for a moment assume that the criminal case has gone away,” Renner said. “I still want somebody who is going to get up every day who is going to spend all their time focusing on voter registrations and doing the things a party chair has to do.”

The matter is expected to come to a head in Orlando on Dec. 17, when the party’s roughly 40-person executive board will consider what to do. Options could include disciplining Ziegler or suspending him without pay. Republicans could also decide to launch their own investigation into the allegations.

Federal campaign reports show that Ziegler’s compensation — which includes salary and reimbursements — is about $124,000 a year.

One Republican Party officer raised concerns that the police’s investigation, which began in October, could take an especially long time to ensure it’s perceived as fair.

“I don’t see how it can get solved in a matter of days,” the person said.

The turmoil comes just a few weeks after what was supposed to be a triumphant moment for Ziegler and the state party. Some of the biggest luminaries of the Republican political universe gathered in early November for a summit hosted by the Republican Party of Florida in Kissimmee that featured DeSantis, Trump and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley.

Trump at the event praised Ziegler as “a man who has done a fantastic job.” Trump also hosted Ziegler and hundreds of county GOP leaders at his Mar-a-Lago estate last month to show appreciation for their volunteer efforts. At the time of both interactions, the rape allegation had not been made public.

Trump hasn’t weighed in on whether he thinks Ziegler should resign, and his campaign didn’t respond to inquiries about it. If Trump continues to back Ziegler, it could exacerbate the breach among Republicans in the state split between the former president and DeSantis.

One state party member who spoke on condition of anonymity said some members were willing to support Ziegler because most people who’d called for his resignation were “never Trumpers.”

But even before the allegations surfaced, some Republicans said they were already aggravated about what they perceived to be a lackluster organizational and fundraising effort under Ziegler this year. The party was supposed to have a discussion about its finances, but it got pushed back until an annual meeting scheduled for February.

“Donors don’t want to contribute under a cloud of chaos,” said the Florida Republican familiar with the thinking of GOP leaders.

On Wednesday, Republican Party of Sarasota County Chair Jack Brill said Ziegler should step down, regardless of whether he is charged with a crime given “this critical election cycle.”

“The moral failings outside of the criminal allegations,” Brill said, “require us to remind all of our community leaders that they are held to a higher standard.”

Source: Politico