Next up: The Florida governor’s mansion.
Trump’s endorsement could prove decisive in Florida’s GOP primary for governor, highlighting just how much the president has come to dominate a party that once had a fraught relationship with him.
The race between Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis also is showcasing the enduring appeal of the anti-establishment message that helped carry Trump and other Republicans into office over the last few years.
Putnam has built a broad network of support over more than two decades in public office. He is endorsed by a wide array of elected leaders and interest groups.
But that doesn’t mean much in the modern GOP, especially when your opponent has the one endorsement that really counts.
Trump will arrive in Tampa Tuesday to hold a rally for DeSantis. Putnam’s campaign — already struggling — could suffer a mortal blow.
A pair of surveys released last week had DeSantis leading Putnam by significant margins.
“Our president’s stronger than he’s ever been with the base and I think he’s going to have a significant impact on the race,” said state Rep. Joe Gruters, who served as the co-chair of Trump’s Florida campaign and is not backing either candidate in the race.
If Putnam loses, it also would be another remarkable rejection of conventional politics and politicians in Florida, one that began when Rick Scott won the governor’s mansion in 2010 and carried through to Trump’s victory in the state in 2016.
Trump’s ability to boost DeSantis from relative obscurity into frontrunner status for the GOP nomination in the governor’s race — leapfrogging a well-liked candidate who has spent years sowing up support in every corner of the state — is the latest sign of a fundamental shift in Republican politics.
Putnam still has time before the Aug. 28 primary to try and beat back DeSantis and avoid the fate of other establishment Florida Republicans, candidates such as Trump opponent Jeb Bush and Scott opponent Bill McCollum.
But he faces a big obstacle in Trump.
Pat Neal first met Putnam in 1996 when he was a 22-year-old running for the state House.
Neal, a Lakewood Ranch home builder and former state senator who remains influential in GOP politics, was introduced to Putnam at the Pier 22 restaurant in downtown Bradenton.
“He had a unique ability to connect with people,” Neal said. “He impressed me as a genuine human being.”
Neal cut a check for Putnam’s legislative campaign and has been a supporter ever since, watching Putnam rise from the Legislature to Congress, where he quickly garnered a top leadership position, and then statewide office.
In 2010 Putnam — a fifth-generation Floridian who grew up in the tiny Polk County community of Bartow and hails from a family of citrus growers — decided not to run for reelection to his Central Florida congressional seat, instead returning home to seek the agriculture commissioner post.
Putnam easily won the job and immediately was viewed as a future candidate for governor. He began quietly laying the groundwork for his current race.
A few years ago, Peter A. Wish, a GOP fundraiser and political consultant from Sarasota, began attending retreats hosted by Putnam in the old money island community of Boca Grande, long a favorite vacation spot of the Bush family.
“I would always say to him I see you as governor of the state someday,” Wish said of his talks with Putnam. “I think he always aspired to be governor of the state. I can’t read his mind but I think that’s something he’s entertained for a long time.”
In Putnam, Wish saw a natural politician at ease in any setting.
“He’s a guy who emotionally connects with people,” Wish said. “He’s very authentic. What you see is what you get.”
Putnam has played up this folksy image with a steady string of low-key grassroots campaign events, including barbecues on country ranches and intimate breakfast chats. He recently held a rally at the Historic Venice Train Depot, where he wore a white dress shirt with rolled up sleeves and no tie and slammed DeSantis for basing much of his campaign on FOX News appearances.
“You gotta role up your sleeves and get involved in each one of our communities,” Putnam told the crowd. “The big ones and the small ones. You can’t run for governor from a studio. You gotta be in a train depot and you gotta be at the barbecue restaurant…”
But Putnam’s efforts to portray himself as Mr. Florida — the candidate who knows the state and its issues inside and out — and dismiss DeSantis as someone who lacks the requisite knowledge and experience for the job appears to be falling flat with many voters.
“Adam Putnam has spent nearly $20 million making that case and voters are just not buying it,” said U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican who supports DeSantis.
Mirroring the anti-establishment playbook employed by Scott and Trump, DeSantis is wearing his outsider status as a badge of honor and hammering Putnam for his connections, saying he is too closely tied to special interests.
Steve Vernon views the current Republican primary for governor as an extension of the GOP rift that began with the Tea Party movement in 2010.
A former Tea Party Manatee president, Vernon is an ardent supporter of DeSantis, whom he described as “a liberty minded limited constitutional government free market individual.”
Tea Party activists were rebelling against the policies of former President Barack Obama, but also against GOP leaders viewed as too compromising and too accommodating to special interests and elites.
“That battle continues,” Vernon said. “In the Republican Party, a lot of it is still Freedom Caucus type people against the more quote unquote establishment type people. Nothing’s changed since 2010 when everything started. I remember Bill McCollum and Rick Scott battling it out. It’s the same type of thing.”
DeSantis, a military veteran who graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School, came on the political scene in Florida shortly after the rise of the Tea Party, winning a Daytona Beach-area congressional district in 2012. He joined the Freedom Caucus, a group of hard right conservatives that formed in the wake of the Tea Party movement.
The Freedom Caucus forced Republican House Speaker John Boehner to resign in 2015 over concerns he was compromising too much on issues such as federal spending. Last week Freedom Caucus leaders introduced a resolution to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who has authority over the investigation into possible collusion by Trump’s campaign and Russia.
DeSantis made a run for the U.S. Senate in 2016 but dropped out when Sen. Marco Rubio decided to seek reelection. After Trump’s election, DeSantis became one of the president’s most outspoken supporters in Congress and a big critic of the Russia investigation. He regularly appears on FOX News to applaud the president and push back against his critics.
“I have found Ron to be very principled and politically courageous,” Gaetz said, adding: “It has not been easy in Washington leading against bad behavior at the Department of Justice and the FBI… it takes some guts.”
For his outspoken defense of Trump, DeSantis has garnered frequent praise from the president, who called him one of his “warriors” in Congress. The big payoff for DeSantis comes Tuesday when Trump arrives in Tampa.
The president’s influence with the GOP base was evident last week when a Trump-backed candidate won a GOP primary in the Georgia governor’s race.
“If you look around the country in these primaries it’s not just Florida,” Gaetz said. “Look at what happened in Georgia. Donald Trump is remaking the Republican party in his image by spending his political capital.”
And it’s not just Trump who is elevating DeSantis. Fox News host Sean Hannity and conservative radio host Mark Levin also are backing him.
During a recent campaign event with Hannity in Fort Myers, DeSantis described the contrast between himself and Putnam as “a genuine, principled conservative leader” versus “a career politician.”
Neal called DeSantis’ approach to campaigning divisive and “irresponsible,” saying the candidate has focused on polarizing wedge issues instead of quality of life concerns.
“His campaign has not been based on issues important to Floridians,” Neal said.
Immigration has emerged as one of the biggest issues in the race. It helped propel Trump’s campaign and has remained on the front burner for conservatives.
DeSantis is hammering Putnam for supporting the so-called Gang of Eight immigration bill that offered a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. Putnam has countered by noting his support among law enforcement officials, and by releasing an ad with Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who is known for his tough on crime approach.
While in Congress, Putnam voted in favor of former President George W. Bush’s signature education initiative — No Child Left Behind — which ushered in an era of education accountability and more testing. DeSantis argues the testing has gone overboard.
Environmental concerns have factored prominently in the race as well, with DeSantis criticizing Putnam for his close ties to sugar farmers who are blamed for excessive fertilizer use that contributes to the toxic algae blooms fouling estuaries on both coasts. DeSantis has said more regulation of the sugar industry may be necessary, and has called for eliminating sugar subsidies.
Another issue weighing on Putnam’s campaign is his handling of concealed weapons permits. A series of news reports have highlighted problems — documented in a lawsuit and state investigations — with how the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services processed licenses to carry a concealed weapon.
Putnam has struggled to expose any cracks in DeSantis’ staunchly conservative record. He said DeSantis voted to give food stamps to illegal immigrants, a claim Politifact rated “pants on fire” false.
Lately Putnam has been running ads that attack DeSantis for supporting tax and entitlement reform efforts that are backed by many conservatives, leading DeSantis campaign manager Brad Herold to declare on Twitter that Putnam has gone “full moderate.”
But the campaign has been less about issues and more about gut level GOP politics.
The Trump factor
Although DeSantis is viewed as to the right of Putnam on a number of issues that play well with primary voters, Gruters believes the congressman would be losing badly without Trump’s support.
“They’re both great conservatives,” Gruters said. “It’s hard to argue that one’s more conservative than the other. The difference is DeSantis has the president behind him.”
The Trump factor could be hard to overcome.
“Adam Putnam is probably one of the most popular, most likeable elected officials in Florida’s history — he’s the friendliest guy you’ll probably ever meet,” Gruters said, adding: “There’s just one hurdle he has to overcome and that’s that the president’s with the other guy. And that’s going to be a tough hurdle to overcome.”
The pull Trump has with primary voters is substantial. A Florida Atlantic University poll released last week found that Florida Republicans overwhelmingly approve of Trump’s job performance.
“One thing that seems increasingly clear is that the president’s such a large and dominant figure in party politics and in media coverage that the president’s policies and support for the president has really dominated the conversation on the Republican side,” said FAU political science professor Kevin Wagner.
Neal is not convinced that Trump will decide the race, noting Putnam has a more sophisticated campaign.
Putnam has raised more money and has built out a big network of volunteers who can help identify supporters and get them to the polls.
And the FAU poll indicated many voters are still undecided and open to persuasion, offering opportunities for a well-financed campaign to reach them with the right message.
Whichever candidate wins, the primary has made a few things clear: Trump is now the dominant force in GOP politics and the party remains very receptive to upsetting the status quo.
“Republican primary voters are not afraid of disruptive reform,” Gaetz said. “They’re the voters that picked Rick Scott over Bill McCollum, Marco Rubio over Charlie Crist and ultimately picked Donald Trump. The Florida primary electorate is very welcoming of disruptive reform.”
Next up: The DemocratsThe Post will publish a profile of the Democratic candidates, and ther positions on key issues, on Monday, Aug. 6.
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The people running for office in their own words, myPalmBeachPost.com/kyc
Education: Bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida
Professional experience: Served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1996 to 2000, the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2011 and as Florida Agriculture Commissioner from 2011 to present.
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Yale, law degree from Harvard University
Professional experience: U.S. Navy JAG officer. Elected to the U.S. House of Representative in 2012.