By Nathan L. Gonzales
One of Rep. Alan Grayson’s pollsters is running for the state House in Florida as a Tea Party candidate, fueling Republican suspicions that the Democratic Congressman is using a newly formed third party to boost his own re-election bid.
On Friday, Victoria Torres, 44, of Orlando qualified to run as a Tea Party candidate in state House district 51 in the last hours of the qualifying period.
A call to Torres was returned by Nick Egoroff, communications director for the Florida Tea Party, who described Torres as a “quasi-paralegal assistant who works in a law office.” But apparently, Torres is also a pollster.
According to records from the Florida Department of State office, Torres incorporated Public Opinion Strategies Inc. in December 2008. In the first quarter of this year, Grayson’s campaign made two payments to her firm, totaling $11,000, for polling and survey expenses.
“She’s got various businesses on the side,” explained Egoroff, who confirmed Torres’ work for Grayson. “It’s just a business relationship. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
Egoroff described Torres as a conservative. When asked why she would work for a liberal lawmaker, he said, “It’s quite common.”
The name of Torres’ company is curious, considering Alexandria, Va.-based Public Opinion Strategies is one of the largest and best-known Republican polling firms in the country. Egoroff declined to say if Torres has worked for any other clients, and her company doesn’t appear to have a website.
“We definitely do not poll for Democrats, nor do we have an office in Orlando,” said Glen Bolger of the Virginia-based POS. “However, we do wish Congressman Grayson the worst of luck in November.”
Dave Beattie, a prominent Florida-based Democratic pollster, also said he had never heard of Torres or her polling firm.
A spokesman for Grayson confirmed that Public Opinion Strategies Inc. is one of three pollsters the Congressman has employed. Dr. Jim Kitchens is Grayson’s principal pollster, but his campaign also uses Middleton Market Research. The use of multiple pollsters simultaneously in the same cycle is highly uncommon for a Congressional candidate.
This latest connection between the Florida Tea Party, Torres and Grayson is only likely to fan the flames of an ongoing battle about the tea party in Florida.
“I will not stand for the way Alan Grayson is using this political party to further his own political career,” businessman Bruce O’Donoghue said at a Thursday press conference with other local tea party movement activists.
O’Donoghue, one of the Republicans vying to take on Grayson this fall, is among Grayson’s detractors who believe the Congressman is connected to the Florida Tea Party. Business consultant Peg Dunmire is running as the Tea Party candidate in Grayson’s 8th district and there is concern among Republicans that she’ll take votes from the GOP nominee and help Grayson get re-elected.
The Florida Tea Party has also recruited Congressional candidates to run in two Republican-held open seats that Democrats have some hope of putting into play, including Rep. Adam Putnam’s 12th district and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s 25th district.
“There is no proof of any money from the Congressman going to the Florida Tea Party,” Grayson spokesman Todd Jurkowski said. “It’s all conspiracy theory.” According to Jurkowski, no decisions have been made about whether to use the polling services of Public Opinion Strategies Inc. in the future.
According to local Republicans, the whole situation is riddled with coincidences.
The Florida Tea Party was founded in August by attorney Fred O’Neal. Egoroff later signed on as communications director, and the party (including Dunmire’s Congressional candidacy) is promoted by Orlando political consultant Doug Guetzloe. Guetzloe and Egoroff were suspended by the Florida Republican Party late last year, but there are differences of opinion about why that happened.
An extensive June 14 Orlando Sentinel article detailed multiple connections between Grayson and Guetzloe. The Congressman appointed Guetzloe to a small-business advisory panel, and Guetzloe’s son interned in Grayson’s Congressional office. In addition, Republicans note that the two men have a financial connection since Grayson is running campaign ads on Guetzloe’s conservative radio show.
With political accusations being lobbed backed and forth, legal charges are in the mix too.
A group of local tea party activists filed suit against the Florida Tea Party, O’Neal and Guetzloe because they say the party doesn’t represent the movement. Guetzloe claims he is the victim of “character assassination,” according to the Sentinel, and has filed his own defamation countersuit.
Now with a couple dozen candidates in races across the state, the Florida Tea Party is planning to file a “criminal complaint” against the Republican Party of Florida for trying to “intimidate” Tea Party candidates and get them to drop their candidacies.
Darin Dunmire, whom Egoroff described as a relative of Peg Dunmire, is running in state House district 40. Nina Virone, a partner at Dunmire Consulting, is running as a Tea Party candidate against state Speaker-designate Dean Cannon (R). Another Tea Party candidate worked at the same radio station as Guetzloe.
Both Darin Dunmire and Virone contributed to Peg Dunmire’s Congressional campaign earlier this year. Peg and Darin Dunmire and Virone all list Peg Dunmire as their campaign’s treasurer and use the same address on their filings.
The tone and tenor of the Florida Tea Party’s actions are remarkably similar to Grayson’s controversial and colorful comments.
“People who know me know that one of my ‘rules of life’ is to try not to get drawn into fist fights with midgets. But, in your case, I’m going to make an exception,” wrote O’Neal, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, in a colorful four-page letter to O’Donoghue after the Republican started criticizing the group.
“Specifically, if by some fluke you become the Republican nominee for the 8th Congressional district, and if by some fluke Peg Dunmire were to want to withdraw from the race, I, personally, am going to beat her with a stick until she agrees to stay in the race to the end,” O’Neal wrote.
“Mr. O’Donoghue seems to admire Congressman Grayson’s shoot from the hip style because he’s doing a darn good imitation of it,” O’Neal said in a separate June 18 release.
Grayson said the Republicans’ health care plan was for seniors to “die quickly,” called a Federal Reserve adviser a “K Street whore” and compared former Vice President Dick Cheney to a vampire.
Along with the rhetorical similarities, the threats of litigation are reminiscent of Grayson as well.
When someone started the website mycongressmanisnuts.com to satirize Grayson’s congressmanwithguts.com, the Democrat wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to investigate and prosecute the woman.
This story originally appeared on RollCall.com on June 21 at 6:20pm and later in Roll Call and CQPolitics.com on June 22. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.