President Donald Trump’s endorsement lifted U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis to victory in Florida’s Republican primary for governor Tuesday and abruptly halted the long rise of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, for years a darling of the state’s GOP establishment.
DeSantis rewrote the political playbook in Florida with his win, beating a candidate who raised considerably more money and executed a textbook campaign centered around extensive television advertising, cultivating strong support among GOP leaders across the state and employing superior grassroots organizing. Putnam’s campaign knocked on more than 400,000 doors and the candidate held more than 200 public events.
All of that proved fruitless in the face of Trump’s endorsement, which helped pluck DeSantis from relative obscurity and propel him into the frontrunner spot in the GOP race. DeSantis was quick to offer the president his gratitude during a victory speech at the Rosen Shingle Creek hotel in Orlando.
“I want to thank him for his support and for trusting me to lead Florida,” DeSantis said of Trump.
With Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — an outspoken liberal who was endorsed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and has called for Trump’s impeachment — winning the Democratic primary for governor, the nomination of DeSantis sets up a match up of polar political opposites that is sure to excite both parties bases and offer voters a clear choice in November. Both Gillum and DeSantis are disruptive, anti-establishment candidates.
In toppling the Putnam political machine, DeSantis continues a string of victories by outsider GOP candidates that dates back to Gov. Rick Scott’s primary win in 2010 and continued in 2016 with Trump’s victory over U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida’s presidential primary.
DeSantis is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, the far right group of lawmakers who have been wielding increasing influence as the GOP moves further to the right. He attacked Putnam from the right on issues such as immigration and education reform while also making environmental protection a key issue in the race, an unusual twist in a GOP primary.
With algae blooms devastating waterfront communities on both coasts, DeSantis hammered Putnam for being too closely tied to the sugar industry, which is regularly blamed for contributing to excess nutrient levels that fuel algae growth.
On immigration, Putnam proved vulnerable in a party that has moved sharply toward stronger immigration enforcement efforts in recent years. DeSantis criticized Putnam for supporting the so-called Gang of Eight immigration bill a few years ago that offered a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, deriding him as “Amnesty Adam.”
A series of controversies at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services also weighed down Putnam’s campaign, most notably the handling of concealed weapons licenses.
News reports highlighted problems — documented in a lawsuit and state investigations — with how Putnam’s office processed the licenses, including a lapse that let almost 300 people improperly obtain concealed carry permits and complaints that the department was unprepared to handle a flood of license requests.
But Trump’s endorsement was the biggest factor in swinging the race to DeSantis.
Lido Key resident Marlena Randanne de Vazeille said Tuesday that she voted for DeSantis “because Trump suggested it.” Her husband, Jacques Randanne de Vazeille, said he trusts Trump’s judgment.
“What I like, and I’ll be very honest with you, is that I have finally somebody who listens to what I want and not what the government wants,” said Jacques Randanne de Vazeille.
Polls showed Putnam comfortably ahead in the race before Trump tweeted his full endorsement of DeSantis on June 22.
“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.
The president flew to Tampa on July 31 — Putnam’s birthday — to tout DeSantis during a rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds. By then DeSantis, a three-term congressman from Northeast Florida, had begun to eclipse Putnam in the polls.
Recent surveys seemed to indicate the race was tightening and that Putnam was within striking distance, but DeSantis ended up winning by a comfortable margin.
Trump drove home his support for DeSantis with a robocall to voters during the weekend and two tweets touting the candidate Monday.
The president’s involvement in the race bedeviled Putnam, who struggled to minimize the endorsement without criticizing Trump, who is hugely popular with GOP voters.
“My opponent’s running on an endorsement,” Putnam said during a recent event in Bradenton. “No plan, no vision, no agenda — just an endorsement. Just hanging on to the coattails. It takes more than that to lead the state of Florida.”
Yet while Trump gave DeSantis, 39, a huge boost, the congressman also benefited from frequent appearances on Fox News, where he defended Trump and advocated hardline conservative positions.
And DeSantis’ background proved appealing to conservatives once they began to learn more about him.
A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, DeSantis served in the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps and has been a committed conservative in Congress.
Meanwhile, Putnam, 43, has held elected office continuously since he was 22, first as a member of the Florida House before heading to Congress and winning the agriculture commissioner job in 2010.
After returning to Florida, Putnam was viewed as almost certain to run for governor someday and he began sowing up support in every part of the state. Affable and well-liked within the party, Putnam seemed like a good bet to secure the GOP nomination for governor this year.
Trump’s involvement in the race upset many Republicans who viewed Putnam as better prepared to be governor and better positioned to win a general election.
Some Republicans worry that DeSantis could have a hard time winning the general election because he is so conservative, and so closely associated with Trump — an extremely polarizing figure. Democrats welcomed the chance to face him in the general election.
“For months, Adam Putnam and Florida Republicans have attacked DeSantis for having ‘no plan, no vision, no agenda, no knowledge, no working knowledge of our state.’ They were right,” Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said in a statement, adding: “DeSantis has shown zero interest in Florida and instead spent this campaign courting Donald Trump, Fox News celebrities and out-of-state billionaires.”
DeSantis dismissed concerns that he would be a weaker general election candidate during a recent interview.
“I’ve been underestimated against Putnam, people are now starting to change that view, and I think I’ll be underestimated going forward, but that’s just how I like it,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis’ victory continues a string of recent primary wins by GOP candidates backed by Trump, a winning streak that highlights the president’s strength within the party and success at remaking the GOP in his own image.
Herald-Tribune staff writer Nicole Rodriguez contributed to this report.