SARASOTA, Florida–The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) just held its winter meeting here, and the wealthy beachfront communities that dot the coast are typically considered one of the beating hearts of the Establishment GOP’s donor community.
Tonight, though, it’s Cruz country.
An event originally scheduled as a small rally for potential 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) mushroomed into a major political event after nearly 2,000 people RSVP’d online.
“We are shocked at the level of interest that we’ve received for doing this rally,” Sarasota GOP chairman Joe Gruters told Breitbart News.
“It’s obvious that the state is aware that he is listening, and they’re excited about what Ted Cruz is saying and it certainly cuts across the bow of the establishment in D.C., which is maybe not trying to ‘stifle’ what Sen. Cruz is saying but certainly that Cruz is getting so much attention at the local level in a county like Sarasota shows you that he’s a major player and that people should watch out for and everything that the guy is doing,” he added.
Cruz opened his remarks here with one his signature phrases. “I spent all of last week in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “It is great to be back in America.”
Following what will now be a sizable rally at the Sarasota Hyatt – participants are already lining up “like Black Friday campers at Best Buy,” one organizer emailed – Cruz will attend a $500 per person VIP fundraiser and, to wrap up the evening, a $5,000 per couple private donor dinner.
The fundraising proceeds are going to the Sarasota County GOP party.
Organizers say 1,800 people signed up for the rally and at least 200 for the dinner.
It’s unusual for an event like this to catch fire, Gruters said, because the community is known less for its conservative activists than its business-minded GOP donors.
“We are a center right community,” he said. “If you look at all of our individuals and officials on a local level, they’re all pretty much just barely center right. The interest and the energy that’s being created as a result of this event is that Cruz–to me, it’s just amazing. From my standpoint, Ted Cruz is a serious political player–and it’s amazing he’s able to attract these large crowds.”
When reached by phone early Thursday afternoon, organizers told Breitbart News they were still rearranging chairs because they needed to ensure there was enough standing room in the venue so as not to break the fire marshall code.
Originally, organizers had planned on having a rally with several hundred people where Cruz would receive the Sarasota GOP “Statesman of the Year” award. Past winners have included Sean Hannity, Donald Trump and Haley Barbour. But when the party announced the event online, an unexpected swarm of GOP activists from the grassroots sought to ensure they had the opportunity to get in to see Cruz in action. “If you have a single candidate rally and you get 500 people in the room, it’s a great day,” Gruters said. “To have almost 2,000 in the room for a single candidate–it’s amazing.”
Gruters also made a strong pitch for other GOP officials to make a stop in his back yard.
“I like to say ‘Sarasota is the new Iowa,'” Gruters said. “If you want to be a serious presidential candidate, you better stop at Palm Beach and you better stop at Sarasota because we have the donors and we have the base activists. My question to everybody is: ‘Go to a rally somewhere else and see how many people you get,'” he said.
Andy Badolato contributed reporting from the event in Sarasota. Breitbart News’ Matthew Boyle reported from Washington.