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Florida for Trump
Incumbent Rep. Vern Buchanan received Donald Trump’s endorsement in 2022. Lynne Sladky/AP

This Republican Candidate Is Too Messy for Florida’s Right Wing

“He probably … thinks if he acts like Donald Trump, he can be elected to office,” one GOP consultant said of the primary challenger to one of Florida’s most established lawmakers.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spent the last year advertising Florida as ground zero for the nation’s most conservative policies. In the process, he inadvertently emboldened a Christian school founder who is now pushing the limits of the state’s right wing.

Eddie Speir wants to oust Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, one of the wealthiest members of Congress and an elder statesman in the Florida delegation. Speir’s candidacy is a long shot. He has little campaign money outside the half million he loaned himself and no high-profile endorsements. Buchanan’s campaign isn’t taking him seriously.

But Speir isn’t a random political newcomer. He was DeSantis’ nominee to New College’s newly conservative board of trustees. More specifically, he was the only nominee not to be confirmed by the Republican-supermajority state legislature last year — an experience that inspired Speir’s run against Buchanan.

Speir is an outgrowth of the governing political ideology in Florida. However, he has taken it too far for the party’s leaders. “He, probably in his head somewhere, read Donald Trump’s book back in the day and thinks if he acts like Donald Trump, he can be elected to office. That’s not how this works; only Donald Trump can be Donald Trump,” local Republican political consultant Anthony Pedicini said about Speir.

“Even the most rabid Republicans are turned off by Speir,” Buchanan campaign manager Max Goodman told NOTUS. Former Florida Republican Party Chair Joe Gruters said Speir is “not a credible candidate against Vern Buchanan.”

Speir’s campaign announcement said Washington is full of “people who have masked their true existence in lies” and wrote, “Perhaps that is why there is no mention of pedophiles, WEF’s Great Reset or other nefarious topics,” referring to the COVID-19 economic recovery plan that became a cornerstone of right-wing pandemic conspiracy theories.

Controversial conservative figureheads like Christopher Rufo, the most vocal firebrand in the anti-critical race theory movement, and conservative Christian Hillsdale College Dean Matthew Spalding did make the cut for DeSantis’ reimagined school board of trustees.

State legislators have not explained why Speir’s confirmation was not taken up for a vote like the other nominees, but Speir told NOTUS he “ruffled feathers from the beginning,” including with his anti-trans rhetoric. While Rufo, too, has made numerous statements against trans people accessing gender-affirming care, Speir called being trans a “mental disorder,” fueling widespread protests on campus.

He’s also come under scrutiny both from local media and Buchanan’s campaign manager for having his campaign headquarters in the same building as his school, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which is “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in or intervening in, any political campaign” under IRS rules.

In a video call with NOTUS — which Speir joined from the school office that serves both as his superintendent office and his campaign office — he said, “When I have meetings with people, do I tell them to come here? Absolutely. Of course I do. This is where I’ve operated for the last umpteen years, and I see no reason to change other than to give into fear of the government.”

Speir has argued that he owns the land and leases the building to both the school and his campaign.

“He’s fraught with problems, whether it’s his school and what he uses the school for, whether it’s his taxes … the guy is flawed beyond belief,” Pedicini said. “Republicans would have a real problem if Eddie Speir is our nominee.”

Referencing his school’s refusal to institute locally mandated mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, Speir said, “That might look like I’m just a lawless flagrant toward the law, actually just the opposite, I’m upholding the law and the highest law being the Constitution, which they are trampling over.”

Speir has pointed to his nearly 6,000 petition signatures as evidence he can build grassroots support, even while being outspent. He is hoping the accusation that Buchanan is a “RINO” takes hold even though Buchanan received Trump’s endorsement in 2022 and hosted Speaker Mike Johnson’s first major fundraiser as leader.

Speir supporters see Buchanan’s working relationship with Johnson as evidence against his conservatism. Speir is endorsed by the local Republican Assembly, whose aim is “reforming the Republican Party with Judeo-Christian conservative constitutionalists.”

Manatee County chapter founder Trent Wayman told NOTUS, “There’s really nothing wrong with being Christian nationalists” and that Johnson was “not doing conservative things in the House.” He added that Speir is not too extreme for Republicans because “we don’t have time for compromise anymore.” (When asked about Christian nationalism, Speir told NOTUS he’s against established religions in government, including what he calls the religion of “wokeness.”)

Local Republican club leader Jeff Lukens, who has supported Buchanan in the past, is endorsing Speir this cycle. “I don’t think it’s too extreme. I think it’s right where the base of the Republican Party is, quite frankly,” Lukens said about Speir. “There’s people like Vern and many other Republicans, unfortunately, who’ve been in the bubble of D.C., and they don’t see what’s going on in the Republican Party at the grassroots level.”

As for Buchanan, he told NOTUS he was largely unconcerned with Speir’s campaign. “We’ve built up a good reputation, a good name, and we’ve done a good job for a long time. I think you’ll see that at the ballot box.”

“It’s like an iceberg,” he added. “Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, I’ll get in the race and see the top 10% that’s above the water,’ but 90% is not what you do during elections. It’s what you do between elections. We do a good job.”

Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow. John T. Seward, a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, contributed to this report.