Lee on Lee County

The Republican chairman of the county that delivers the third-best performance in turnout of voters in Florida insists that Rudy Giuliani can not only win his county, but win the state’s presidential primary January 29.

“With the House very unlikely to go back to Republican control next year and half the Republican senators in trouble, it is critical we keep the Presidency,” said Gary Lee, onetime New York House Member (1978-82) and now Republican chairman of Lee County, Florida. 

Like Rep. Candace Miller (R.-Mich.), Sen. David Vitter (R.-La.) and other high-profile GOPers who have endorsed the former New York mayor for President, Lee is far more conservative than the candidate he favors.  Indeed, in 1970, when he lived in upstate New York and was Republican chairman of Tompkins County (thus making him one of the few Americans to serve as a county chairman of a major party in two different states), the young Lee made headlines by endorsing Conservative Party U.S. Senate nominee James L. Buckley over the liberal Republican incumbent, Charles Goodell.  Lee vividly recalled sitting down to dinner with his wife and children and being interrupted by an angry telephone call from then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who had appointed Goodell to replace the late Robert F. Kennedy.

“It was not a pleasant conversation,” said Lee, whose support convinced other New York State GOPers to break ranks and help elect Buckley over Goodell and Democratic nominee Richard Ottinger.

In this race, transplanted Floridian and staunch conservative Lee tried to persuade House classmate Newt Gingrich to run.  He favors Giuliani because, in his words, “Rudy can win.” 

As for polling reports that Giuliani is fading in the primary next week, Lee pointed to polls of his own 150-member GOP county committee — one that consists of robust volunteers — showing the former mayor consistently in the lead.  According to Lee, “We polled in April, September, and December of last year.  In each poll, Rudy was ahead with 29% or 28%, almost always followed by Fred Thompson with 20%, Mitt Romney at about 10%, and everyone else in single digits.” 

The chairman admonished me not to be surprised if Giuliani comes in first next week because so much voting was done by absentee ballot and in early voting that state election law makes easy.  According to Lee, “Requests for absentee ballots were up by 400% in our county from the ’06 primary and there are estimates that as many as 40% of Republican primary voters have voted already.” 

Although he has long been committed to Giuliani and wants Florida’s Gov. Charles Crist as the vice presidential candidate, Lee also feels Thompson would have been a strong candidate had he started earlier and run a better campaign.  Recalling the Tennessean’s visit to Lee County last year, the chairman noted that “we had 1800 turn out for him at a breakfast.  That’s pretty impressive.  I don’t know why he ever caught on.”