Florida GOP balks at idea of buyout for party chair accused of rape

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Florida GOP balks at idea of buyout for party chair accused of rape

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Embattled Republican Party of Florida Chair Christian Ziegler has floated the idea of the state party offering him a “soft landing” as part of a resignation deal, six Republican sources tell NBC News, as Ziegler faces a criminal investigation related to sexual battery, including rape.

Those sources say Ziegler first presented the idea of a payout in exchange for removal from his role to former Republican Party of Florida Chair Joe Gruters and Republican National Committeeman Peter Feaman, who began at least discussing ways to end the party’s direct ties to Ziegler amid the politically explosive criminal investigation.

Gruters and Feaman started discussing the idea with other party officials, and it quickly became clear there was no appetite for a buyout, the sources said. Neither Gruters nor Feaman provided comment in response to questions. Florida Politics first reported the potential of a buyout.

Ziegler denied to NBC News that he requested any sort of financial payout to resign as chairman.

The investigation by the Sarasota police centers on allegations that Ziegler raped a woman in her Sarasota apartment in early October, which Ziegler has denied. Both he and his wife, Bridget Ziegler, were planning on having a consensual sexual encounter with the accuser, whom they had known for 20 years, but the woman tried to cancel when she was informed Bridget would not be participating, according to a search warrant affidavit that was first reported by the Florida Center for Government Accountability and shared with NBC News.

“We are confident that once the police investigation is concluded that no charges will be filed and Mr. Ziegler will be completely exonerated,” Ziegler’s attorney Derek Byrd said in a statement for a previous NBC News story.

Sarasota police have not confirmed or denied the authenticity of the affidavit, which has been widely reported. But last month, police provided NBC News a heavily redacted report mentioning “rape” and sexual battery when asked for a complaint filed against Ziegler.

The situation has thrust Florida Republicans into the national spotlight in the middle of a presidential election, as Ziegler has refused to resign in defiance of most party leaders, including Gov. Ron DeSantis. Ziegler is not charged with any crime and has maintained he is innocent after the accusation brought by a longtime friend of his and of his wife, who is a prominent Republican and co-founder of the conservative group Moms for Liberty.

The Zieglers had a longtime consensual sexual relationship with the accuser, according to the search warrant affidavit.

The more than half dozen party leaders NBC News spoke with said there is no chance there will be a payout for Ziegler to walk away from the Florida GOP. They said that during an emergency party meeting set for Sunday in Orlando, there is likely to be an overwhelming vote to strip Ziegler of much of his power and salary. He looks set to be ousted as party chairman as soon as early January.

“Ziegler’s inability to raise money for the party is well-established, but now we see his intent is to loot the joint on the way out,” said David Johnson, a former Florida GOP executive director.

Among those who are advocating for Ziegler to stay in place and not resign are former Trump administration officials Steve Bannon, a prominent conservative media personality, and Corey Lewandowski, who has worked on several political races in the past with Ziegler, who runs his own Republican consulting firm.

On phone calls, Bannon said Ziegler would become a “MAGA hero” if he stayed on amid the sexual battery investigation and calls for his resignation, according to a Florida GOP official directly familiar with the calls. The official also said Lewandowski told Ziegler that “fundraising will come from” his decision to stand strong and not resign.

Bannon did not return a request seeking comment. Lewandowski declined to comment for this story.

Ziegler has a notoriously defiant public political persona. In July, he said at the Moms for Liberty media training center that it was smart to “never apologize ever. … I think apologizing makes you weak.”

Michael Thompson, who is chair of the Lee County Republican Party, said Ziegler told him that part of the reason he wanted to stay on as chairman is because a significant amount of political money is set to move through the state during the 2024 presidential election cycle, much of which the Republican Party of Florida will have direct influence over.

“He told me that on the phone,” Thompson said. “A lot of this is about the money.”

In a text message to NBC News, Ziegler denied he said any such thing to Thompson.

Thompson estimates that roughly only 2% of party leaders remain supportive of Ziegler staying as chairman.

While Ziegler clings to his post as party chairman, Bridget Ziegler has faced professional blowback as a result of the scandal. The Sarasota County School Board passed a resolution Tuesday night calling on her to resign from the board, and she has resigned her position from the Leadership Institute, a group that works to train conservative political candidates.

She is not accused of criminal wrongdoing, but she has faced accusations of hypocrisy for allegedly engaging in consensual sex acts with a woman even though she has been a political opponent of the LGBTQ community. Bridget Ziegler helped write the nationally known, DeSantis-championed legislation to prevent the discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms up to third grade.



Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon is a senior national politics reporter for NBC News, based in Florida.

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