Republicans concerned with ascent of young Florida candidate

A brash, young political newcomer is causing a fuss in GOP circles in the race against Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.).

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And what else would you expect in a district that has produced the most colorful member of Congress?

Armando Gutierrez has made a name for himself as a 28-year-old with a supremely ambitious campaign that features an aggressive endorsement-seeking effort.

The businessman has used his family ties and connections to garner an impressive list of endorsements from elected and party officials, including Reps. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) and Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.). And, so far, he is the only major candidate to challenge the top-targeted Grayson.

But GOP operatives in Washington and the district say he is running a destructive primary campaign, and national and local leaders are doing just about anything they can to avoid having him as their nominee.

“He’s offending a lot of people,” said attorney Will McBride, who opted out of the race last week. “He’s rubbing people the wrong way. He needs to be a little more professional in his approach to reaching out to local leaders in our party.”

Numerous others confirmed the widespread bristling at Gutierrez’s early maneuvers.

“He’s pissing people off a lot,” said a leading local GOP operative. “He’s very pushy and is an unknown commodity, and people are jealously guarding their prerogatives.”

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who is leading National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) recruiting efforts in the race, suggested the committee is concerned about the way the race is shaping up with Gutierrez.

He is scheduled to meet with the candidate on Monday.

“Florida has a fairly late primary, and we want to make sure whoever is in the primary is working toward the good of the primary,” Westmoreland said, “and that the person who emerges isn’t divisive.”

Westmoreland also said the committee is looking “to get a candidate that matches that district and understands local issues.” Gutierrez is a real estate developer from South Florida who moved north to the Orlando area in advance of his campaign.

Gutierrez stressed that he has done business in Central Florida for six years and is “very familiar” with the area.

He said any resistance to his candidacy among party leaders isn’t concerning to him.

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“As long as I keep getting calls and people want to meet me in Central Florida, I’m happy,” he said. “As long as that continues to happen, the momentum and the will of the people is going our way.”

Recruiting a candidate to run against Grayson has been a tough slog for Republican leaders, with a casualty list that includes former state Sen. Daniel Webster, Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, state Rep. Steve Precourt, state House Speaker Larry Cretul and several others.

Gutierrez has used the void to step forward as the default standard-bearer. The son of a well-known and politically active Cuban-American activist of the same name — Armando Sr. served as a spokesman for the family of Elian Gonzalez — the younger Gutierrez’s name and efforts have given him plenty of early traction.

Gutierrez has so far racked up endorsements from the three congressmen, former state party Chairman Al Cardenas, former Gov. Jeb Bush’s son George P. Bush and several state legislators.

Gutierrez campaign adviser Brian Graham said the candidate has raised about $5,000 per day since getting into the race a month ago, and that he has four billionaires on his yet-to-be-released finance committee.

Schock is his most recent endorser and, at a few months older than Gutierrez, is the youngest member of Congress. The two met during a Republican National Committee event for young donors in Miami.

He said Gutierrez represents more of what the GOP needs, and he pointed to a Democrat, Rep. Scott Murphy, who won a special election in upstate New York earlier this year, as an example.

“With all the frustration with Washington … voters are looking for outsiders to come here and shake up the system,” Schock told The Hill. “Who better during an economic downturn than a proven job-creator?”

George P. Bush said in backing Gutierrez last month: “The Republican Party needs a leader like Armando Gutierrez.”

Grayson was a leading GOP target to begin the cycle, and that target has only grown since then, after he said the Republican healthcare plan was to have people “die quickly.” More recently, he was forced to apologize for calling a female lobbyist a “K Street whore.”

Despite his swing district and outspoken style, Grayson’s personal wealth has proven a deterrent to prospective challengers, and leaders are unable to explain their lack of recruiting success.

National Republican leaders have continued to recruit in the race, with businessman Bruce O’Donoghue the most likely to get in. State Rep. Eric Eisnaugle has also talked with party officials, and state Rep. Kurt Kelly is being mentioned as well.

With the field not shaping up as once hoped, Republicans in the district are also contacting Crotty in hopes that he will reconsider, and he has said he will think about it, according to sources.

“It has been a process,” Westmoreland said. “We have been through a lengthy process.”