Florida's GOP Gubernatorial Primary Becomes A Test Of Trump's Sway In His Party

Adam Putnam runs a traditional campaign. Ron DeSantis goes on Fox a lot to defend Trump. Guess which one Trump backs.

ORLANDO, Fla. ― Adam Putnam goes to fish fries and strawberry festivals to talk about Florida’s schools and roads. Fellow Republican Ron DeSantis goes to the Fox News studios in Washington to talk about why Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president should be stopped.

Putnam was a state legislator and congressman, and is now the state’s elected agriculture commissioner as he seeks the governor’s office. He has the backing of the remnants of the old-line state Republican Party, the one fashioned by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

DeSantis was a Navy lawyer who served in Iraq and entered politics six years ago when he won a Daytona Beach-based congressional seat. His gubernatorial bid has the backing via tweet of President Donald Trump.

Which one wins the GOP nomination in the Aug. 28 primary for the open seat will likely offer a strong clue as to Trump’s hold over the Republican voting base ― as well as show whether a large swing state’s governorship can be successfully nationalized via cable news.

“The next governor of Florida needs to know Florida,” Putnam said Saturday night at a Florida Family Policy Council forum, the first time he and DeSantis have appeared at the same event.

Putnam, 43, has been running his campaign the way statewide races have been run in Florida for generations, with visits to community events, fairs, barbeques and so on, adding up to hundreds of such stops.

DeSantis’s campaign argues that it, too, has been staging local campaign visits, but points out that the congressional schedule requires him to be in Washington for the majority of most weeks. DeSantis, 39, himself conceded in his Saturday session on stage that many Floridians know little about him.

“They see me on Fox, but they don’t know who I am,” he said. 

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) frequently appears on Fox News programs as a stout defender of President Donald Trump.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) frequently appears on Fox News programs as a stout defender of President Donald Trump.

But one campaign official acknowledged that the Fox News strategy ― DeSantis does multiple brief appearances on the network each week, typically defending Trump on whatever national issue is spotlighted ― was deliberate.

“When he goes on [Sean] Hannity ― 3 million viewers, 300,000 of them in Florida, 280,000 of them are probable GOP primary voters,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “It would take 30 local events to reach that number of people.”

That strategy also won DeSantis an endorsement from Trump, an avid viewer of Fox programming, weeks before the lawmaker officially announced his candidacy.

“Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!” Trump wrote in a Dec. 22 tweet.

How much follow-through will occur beyond that remains to be seen. Trump mentioned DeSantis recently during a phone call to Fox and Friends as an “absolute warrior” on a list of allies that included former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. But beyond that, there has been no campaign appearance, no fundraising help.

Putnam’s campaign, which was disappointed by Trump’s endorsement tweet but not surprised by it, is working behind the scenes to keep the president out of the primary.

“We’re doing our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said one Putnam adviser on condition of anonymity, referring to any additional Trump aid to DeSantis.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam (R) is relying on traditional campaign efforts in his bid for the governor's
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam (R) is relying on traditional campaign efforts in his bid for the governor's office.

Of course, having Trump’s endorsement, while it most likely helps in the GOP primary, could be far less helpful ― and perhaps hurtful ― in the general election. In Florida, the gap between the two events will be barely two months, making it difficult for the GOP nominee to distance himself from remarks designed for a primary audience.

Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, said that balancing act will be even more difficult with Trump in the mix, given his deep unpopularity with non-Republicans.

“The way things work is you’re really not thinking about the general election,” he said. “You’re just hoping to win the primary and hope for the best.”

Brad Herold, DeSantis’ campaign manager, said he expects Trump to follow through on his commitment to help DeSantis in the primary, and that the candidate would welcome his support even after that. “I don’t think the president’s support is something we’ll shy away from, even in the general election,” he said.

He added that trying to run away from Trump leading into the general election would be pointless, given that Democrats will be treating every Republican as a Trump stand-in. “If you have an ‘R’ next to your name, they’re going to tie you to him anyway,” he said.

Cardenas said he’s curious to see how the primary plays out. “I think it’s to Adam Putnam’s interest that we keep the race on state issues and it’s in DeSantis’ interest that we keep talking about Donald Trump,” he said.