President Donald Trump gave his “full endorsement” on Friday to U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis in Florida’s Republican primary for governor — embracing a candidate who, according to Trump’s preferred news network, faces a double-digit deficit against Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
A Fox News poll released late Thursday shows Putnam with a 32-to-17 percent lead over DeSantis in the GOP primary, with 39 percent of likely Republican voters undecided. Putnam and DeSantis are scheduled to debate for the first time next week in a Fox-televised event in Orlando.
“Congressman Ron DeSantis, a top student at Yale and Harvard Law School, is running for Governor of the Great State of Florida. Ron is strong on Borders, tough on Crime & big on Cutting Taxes — Loves our Military & our Vets. He will be a Great Governor & has my full Endorsement!” Trump tweeted at 7:58 a.m.
Trump praised DeSantis on Twitter in December, but stopped short of formally endorsing him at that time.
Putnam is close to Vice President Mike Pence, with whom he served 10 years in the U.S. House, and has deep connections to Florida’s Republican establishment. Several people in Trump’s orbit have tried to dissuade the president from making a campaign appearance for DeSantis or offering the kind of full-throated support he gave Friday.
“If the president comes in to campaign for Ron in July, that’s a game changer because it will engage our base. But Ron’s team is going to have to figure how to take that enthusiasm and translate it into votes,” said a person with close ties to Trump’s political organization and concerns about DeSantis’ campaign.
While DeSantis so far has not attended many public campaign events in Florida, he appears frequently on Fox News to comment on national issues and condemn special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia collusion probe.
On Wednesday, for example, DeSantis used his gubernatorial campaign Twitter account to tweet a link to a Fox and Friends appearance in which he said “this Russia collusion thing was infected by bias from the start. The legitimacy of this thing is gone.”
Trump has only made endorsements in a dozen or fewer Republican primaries, with mixed success.
He famously declared his support for Luther Strange over Roy Moore in a special Alabama U.S. Senate primary last year, making a campaign appearance for Strange that is best remembered for Trump’s criticism of NFL players who don’t stand for the National Anthem.
Moore defeated Strange in the GOP primary and later got Trump’s support for the December general election, but he lost to Democrat Doug Jones after being accused of child molestation and pursuing relationships with teenage girls.
Trump endorsed Mitt Romney’s Utah Senate bid in February. Romney finished a close second at an April state convention of GOP delegates that could have awarded him the nomination if he had attracted 60 percent support. Romney now must run in a Republican primary next week in which he is heavily favored.
In South Carolina, Trump endorsed Gov. Henry McMaster the week before the state’s June 12 primary. McMaster won a plurality of the vote but not a majority, forcing him into a runoff next week against John Warren. Trump is scheduled to campaign for McMaster in South Carolina on Monday.
Also in South Carolina, Trump endorsed challenger Katie Arrington over incumbent U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a frequent Trump critic, about three hours before the primary polls closed. Arrington narrowly defeated Sanford.
At least four other Republicans who got primary endorsements from Trump went on to win their GOP nomination bids: Adam Laxalt in the Nevada governor’s race, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson in a bid for re-election, Tennessee U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn in a Senate race and Ohio U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci in a Senate race.
In California’s primary for governor, which includes candidates from all parties, Trump-backed Republican John Cox finished a distant second — but that was good enough to propel him to the general election against Democrat Gavin Newsom.
Trump’s endorsement of DeSantis comes more than two months before Florida’s Aug. 28 primary and with a large chunk of Republican voters still up for grabs. In addition to the 39 percent of Florida Republicans who responded “not sure” in the Fox News poll, 12 percent either backed minor candidates, “other” or “none of the above.”
While many Republicans haven’t made up their mind in the gubernatorial primary, their opinion of Trump is fairly settled.
The Fox News poll found 86 percent approval for Trump’s job performance among Florida Republicans. That includes 88 percent among Republican men and 84 percent among Republican women, 97 percent among “very conservative” Republicans and 96 percent among white evangelicals. Sixty-two percent of Florida Republicans “strongly” approve of the job Trump is doing and another 24 percent are “somewhat” supportive.
The same poll found Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s approval rating at 80 percent among Florida Republican voters. Scott is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
The Fox poll of 901 likely Republican voters, conducted June 15-19, has a 3 percent margin of error.