The chairman of the Florida Republican Party abruptly announced his resignation Tuesday, a victory for opponents of Gov. Charlie Crist and activists working to push the GOP in a more conservative, more confrontational direction.
Jim Greer, who was placed in the job by Crist in 2007, assailed his critics in a conference call with reporters, saying they had two goals: "Remove me as chairman and, if that doesn't work, burn the house down and try to destroy the Republican Party.
"I cannot be a participant in the shredding and tearing of the fabric" of the GOP, said Greer, who plans to step aside in February, well ahead of Florida's Aug. 24 primary election.
The state has emerged as one of the main battlegrounds of the 2010 midterm vote, with a U.S. Senate primary that pits Crist, a relative moderate, against former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, an unstinting conservative and a favorite of the anti-government, anti-establishment activists rallying under the "tea party" banner.
The tension reflects one of the paradoxes of this election season: fierce Republican infighting at a time the political climate strongly favors the GOP. Apart from Florida, ideological battles are underway in Texas, California and several other states. On Tuesday, attorney Mike Lee joined the crowded Republican field challenging Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a three-term GOP incumbent.
Greer, a close ally of Crist, has been criticized for his spending practices and fundraising performance. But the main source of intraparty friction was his work on behalf of Crist, who infuriated some conservatives by, among other things, standing alongside President Obama when he came to Florida last year to campaign for his economic stimulus plan.
"He pushed for Crist and tried to shove Rubio aside," Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor and longtime student of state politics, said of Greer. "For a lot of county party chairs, that was heresy."
Everett Wilkinson, a tea party activist in south Florida, said Greer's decision sent a message to Crist. "What we're trying to do is hold our politicians and elected officials responsible," said Wilkinson, who opposed the Wall Street bailout and Obama's stimulus plan. "Chairman Greer is one of the first people to go."
Greer's decision came just days before the party's annual meeting in Orlando, where he faced the prospect of a no-confidence vote by party leaders. Last month, a dozen of Florida's top GOP contributors issued a letter calling for his resignation.
Crist issued a statement Tuesday praising Greer and urging Florida Republicans "to unite behind our common values of less government and more personal freedom and . . . move forward together to ensure statewide Republican victories in 2010." He endorsed state Sen. John Thrasher, a conservative close to former Gov. Jeb Bush, to be the next party chairman.