In a burst of activity over the weekend, Michael Flynn released a letter that declared “our party is at risk because… we’ve allowed the establishment to rule the roost” and shared a video on social media attacking a fellow Republican.
Both the letter and the video were aimed at keeping the GOP vice chair in Sarasota County, where Flynn lives, from ascending to the chair position, a low-profile tussle to lead a county party that’s emblematic of the broader struggle nationally within the GOP, one that shows no signs of letting up even as it proves politically problematic for Republicans.
Former President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, Flynn has been at the forefront of the Trump era crusade to transform the Republican Party.
Those efforts to shift the GOP further right hit a speed bump this month when prominent candidates who had embraced Trump’s unfounded claims of a stolen election – which Flynn champions – lost key races for governor and U.S. Senate, preventing a predicted red wave from materializing nationally.
Yet even as the GOP’s extreme turn in the Trump era appears to be weighing the party down, individuals such as Flynn are keeping the pressure on, agitating for an overhaul of Republican politics at all levels.
Backed by Flynn, a group of Republican activists are seeking to take control of the Sarasota GOP and install a new leader aligned with the right flank of the party.
The election Thursday to select the next Sarasota GOP chair has many of the same elements that have divided the GOP nationally in the Trump era, including what some perceive as a clash between establishment and anti-establishment forces and pressure from extreme elements.
Current Sarasota GOP Vice Chair Jack Brill, a Longboat Key resident, has spent years building connections within the local party and has wide support from top elected officials as he seeks the chair job.
Brill’s challenger, Englewood resident and Flynn neighbor Conni Brunni, also is a longtime GOP activist but has been more on the fringes of party politics, most recently leading an independent political committee that was criticized for engaging in extreme tactics in the August school board races.
Brill is endorsed by the vast majority of Republican officeholders in Sarasota County, including three of the five county commissioners, the entire legislative delegation and three constitutional officers. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio also backs Brill.
Brunni has Flynn in her corner and other far-right activists such as Vic Mellor, who owns The Hollow, a sprawling outdoor event space in Venice that has become a gathering place for conservatives, including those who are more extreme.
Mellor was outside the U.S. Capitol when it was overrun by Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021. He posted a picture of himself at the scene on social media, and wrote “just knocked on front doors.”
Flynn is friends with Mellor and has frequented The Hollow, along with members of the extremist group the Proud Boys. Both Mellor and Brunni praise the local Proud Boys.
Mellor said Brill first attracted his attention during the Sarasota County School Board races, which saw three conservative candidates win seats on the board, delivering a conservative majority.
The August school board elections drew intense interest on the right because of dissatisfaction over the board’s COVID-19 mask mandate and other policies.
Flynn participated in an anti-mask event at The Hollow and later advocated for the conservative school board candidates. Local Proud Boys also were active in the school board elections.
Mellor financed a political committee run by Brunni that paid for a billboard on a truck accusing one left-leaning school board candidate of being a “baby killer” because she previously worked at Planned Parenthood. The committee also paid for postcards sent to voters that accused left-leaning candidates of wanting “GROOMING AND PORNOGRAPHY IN OUR SCHOOLS.”
Brill put out a statement distancing the Sarasota GOP from the political committee’s actions, saying the party is not associated with the group “in any way.”
Brill’s approach to the school board races angered Mellor. He believes Brill tried to keep certain GOP activists at a distance, and wasn’t aggressive enough.
“Jack’s not a fighter,” Mellor said. “Jack’s going to go with what’s best for Jack and the establishment that he represents.”
Brill said he works to “help our candidates to have them be in the position to be the most electable as possible.”
Brunni also accuses Brill of trying to limit who can be involved in the Sarasota GOP, something he denies, despite an email he sent indicating a member of the far right Defend Florida group would “definitely not pass the vetting process” to be accepted onto the party’s executive committee.
There are 377 members of the Sarasota GOP executive committee who are eligible to vote in the chair’s race, but only those who attend Thursday’s meeting can cast a ballot.
Brunni went public earlier this year with concerns that Brill was preventing Flynn and others from joining the executive committee. The applications were later approved. Flynn joined the committee, along with a local Proud Boy and a member of Defend Florida, which has amplified Trump’s unfounded election fraud claims.
“Are we the country club or the big tent? It’s that simple,” Brunni said, arguing Brill’s attitude is: “Keep the riff raff out. He’s the country club.”
Brunni says she wants the party to be more transparent, accountable and inclusive. She sees no reason to steer clear of the Proud Boys, a self-described “western chauvinist” group whose leader and other members are facing seditious conspiracy charges for allegedly helping to coordinate the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The Canadian government designated the Proud Boys a terrorist entity last year, saying the group is a neo-fascist organization that has engaged in political violence and that members “espouse misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and white supremacist ideologies,” according to the Associated Press.
“Have I met people who said they are Proud Boys? Yes, they are faith, family and they are about their country. What the heck is the problem?” Brunni said.
Some of the far-right individuals backing Brunni also are major proponents of Trump’s claims about the 2020 election.
“The election was stolen, massive amounts of fraud happened during that election,” Mellor said. “We were 100% justified being at the Capitol on Jan. 6.”
Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and was pardoned by Trump, was heavily involved in efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory.
The U.S. House committee that investigated events surrounding Jan. 6, 2021, highlighted efforts by Flynn and fellow Sarasota County resident Patrick Byrne to stop Biden from taking office.
The committee provided details about an extraordinary meeting that Flynn, Byrne and attorney Sidney Powell had with Trump at the White House on Dec. 18, 2020.
The committee highlighted an executive order drafted by Trump’s allies that would have instructed the Department of Defense to seize voting machines and appointed a special counsel to investigate election fraud claims, with Powell proposed as the special counsel.
Flynn released a letter on Saturday endorsing Brunni for the Sarasota GOP chair position.
“I want each of you to know that I stand shoulder to shoulder with Ms. Conni Brunni, because as (Thomas) Jefferson said, she stands “like a rock” on her principles,” Flynn wrote.
Asked if she believes the 2020 election was stolen, Brunni said: “Have I looked at it that closely? I don’t know. I do believe there was undoubtedly fraud among various locations yes, but it’s time to move forward.”
“I’m not one of those thinking it’s going to be overturned… it’s time to move on,” she added.
Brunni said Flynn could help the party expand it’s reach. He brings “access to those alternate sources of media outlets that we might not otherwise have, it also brings finances that we might not otherwise have access to,” she said.
Flynn has been helping Brunni’s campaign online. He promoted a video on his Telegram account, which has 261,000 subscribers, over the weekend that features Mellor criticizing Brill.
In a statement sent through Mellor, Flynn disputed that he wants to takeover the Sarasota GOP or move it in a far-right direction.
“This is not a ‘far right takeover,’ that is your label,” Flynn wrote. “And it does a disservice to the many men and women who give much of their own time and energy to volunteer to help our community. Those who I have met hold traditional conservative American values and believe our county and country are going in the wrong direction. Lastly, this isn’t a ‘takeover’, it is an opportunity for the (Sarasota Republican Executive Committee) to become far more inclusive, much more unified and vastly more influential in the State’s GOP and for the future of the citizens of this county and the State of Florida. All of which is why I endorse Mrs. Conni Brunni to be the next Chairperson of the (Sarasota Republican Executive Committee.”
Sarasota GOP spokesman Rod Thomson also disputed that there is a difference in how conservative Brunni and her backers are versus Brill and his backers.
“I don’t think it’s a right versus less right,” Thomson said. “It’s not right/left, it’s almost like it’s those who are willing to do what’s necessary to win and the disgruntleds.”
Thomson characterized Brill’s critics as having a “petty personal animosity” against him and argued that the wave of GOP victories in Sarasota County during the recent election show he is an effective leader.
“They’re trying to fix something that’s not broken,” Thomson said. “They’re arguing with success.”
Brill, who has served as acting chair of the party while Chair Joe Gruters runs the state GOP, noted in a statement that Republicans won nearly every race on the ballot in Sarasota County this year.
“The Republican Party of Sarasota County during my four years of leadership as Acting Chairman has excelled in every metric, the most important one being the historic levels of Republican victories we saw this year,” Brill said.
Brill called the Sarasota GOP “a model of success” and pushed back against the “personal attacks launched against me daily by people claiming they want to unify the Party.”
“Our results show enormous unity,” he said.
Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org