Florida Republicans replace party chairman under rape investigation

(Reuters) – Florida’s Republican Party on Monday ousted their chairman as police investigate a rape accusation against him, switching leaders a week before Governor Ron DeSantis faces his first test in his quest for the GOP presidential nomination.

The Florida GOP said in a post on X that it elected Evan Power as its chair. Power, who had served as vice chairman, will replace Christian Ziegler, who was accused in October of raping a woman with whom he and his wife had previously had a sexual encounter, according to a search warrant issued by a Florida Circuit Court in Sarasota.

Ziegler did not immediately return a request for comment on Monday, but has previously denied the charge.

The Florida party has yet to announce Ziegler’s ouster, which was reported by the Orlando Sentinel newspaper.

The scandal has rocked the party as it gears up for November’s U.S. presidential election. Although Floridians voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, it is considered a battleground state for national contests.

The change in Florida’s leadership comes days ahead of Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, when that state’s Republicans will chose their preferred candidate for the nomination.

DeSantis, whom polls show trailing Trump in Iowa and other states with early presidential primary elections, called on Ziegler to resign in late November, telling reporters, “we just can’t have a party chair that is under that type of scrutiny.”

The Florida Republican Party suspended Ziegler during a meeting in December and unsuccessfully called for his resignation, according to reports from the meeting that Florida’s Lee County Republican Chairman Michael Thompson posted on the social media platform X.

The party’s executive board censured Ziegler for hurting “the good name” of the party and engaging in “conduct that renders him unfit” to lead it, without specifying what that conduct was, according to a document Thompson posted from the meeting.

The scandal also disgraced Ziegler’s wife Bridget, a Sarasota School Board member who co-founded the conservative parents-rights group Moms for Liberty and has advocated against teaching young children about gender and sexuality issues.

No criminal accusations have come out against Bridget Ziegler, but the revelation of her participation in a sexual threesome with her husband’s accuser prompted the Sarasota School Board to call for her resignation, according to local news reports.

(This story has been refiled to remove an incorrect picture)

(Reporting by Julia Harte and Gram Slattery; Editing by David Gregorio)