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Key unanswered questions about Ron DeSantis

By Adam C. Smith | Political Editor
Published: January 3, 2018 Updated: January 6, 2018 at 06:52 PM
FILE - In this May 24, 2016 file photo, House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla. testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. DeSantis announced Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, he‚\u0088\u009A¬Ę‚\u0080\u009A\u0082¬ \u0308‚\u0080\u009A\u0084¬Ęll join a crowded field seeking to succeed Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who leaves office in early 2019 to term limits. DeSantis‚\u0088\u009A¬Ę‚\u0080\u009A\u0082¬ \u0308‚\u0080\u009A\u0084¬Ę entry comes after President Donald Trump tweeted last month that DeSantis is "a brilliant young leader" who "would make a GREAT governor.‚\u0088\u009A¬Ę‚\u0080\u009A\u0082¬ \u0308¬¨\u009D (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File) NY108

Donald Trumpís favorite candidate for Florida governor, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, finally made his candidacy official on Friday. With super-wealthy backers, an ideal bio that includes military service and Ivy League schools, and an arch-conservative record, he stands to upend the already unpredictable GOP primary featuring Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

But a bunch of questions remain unanswered:

How does he play in Florida?

DeSantis is a creature of the Washington beltway, a darling of conservative interest groups like Americans for Prosperity and the American Conservative Union, and a fixture on Fox News. His skill as a grassroots campaigner is suspect (Corcoran, too), as is his interest in grassroots campaigning.

"Floridians need a Florida First conservative like Adam Putnam to serve them as their next governor, not a Washington, D.C., insider," sniffed Putnam, who spent a decade as a Washington insider and member of Congress. "In true Washington insider fashion, Congressman Ron DeSantis announced his latest campaign from an empty TV studio to broadcasters in New York."

Putnamís right that DeSantis, 39, has shown little interest in Florida media, preferring to court Washington-based outlets and communicating with Florida Republicans via Fox News satellite interviews. As a U.S. Senate candidate for a few months (until Marco Rubio decided to run again), he was not an especially natural campaigner or public speaker and never gained much traction before dropping out.

Will DeSantis hand the GOP nomination to Putnam?

Corcoran and DeSantis both are positioning themselves as anti-establishment/drain the swamp candidates best suited to win over Trumpís base of voters. They could well divide that lane, leaving Putnam to ride to victory with more pragmatic Republicans.

Can DeSantis convince Republicans he can win?

Democrats generally see him as the weakest Republican nominee of the bunch, an unbending government shutdown guy too far out of the mainstream for a purple state like Florida.

Conservative radio personality Mark Levin calls DeSantis one of the top 25 conservatives in Washington, the only Floridian on that list. Americans for Prosperity and the American Conservative Union give him 100 percent ratings.

The Heritage Foundationís political committee gives the former Dunedin resident an 88 percent rating, higher than any other Florida House member. By comparison, former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Belleair Bluffs, earned 39 percent.

That hard-right persona should play well with todayís Republican primary voter, but if Trumpís pick for governor looks like a general election loser, Republicans will think twice.

Will the money really pour in?

DeSantis announced some mighty national names for his finance committee ó among them casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, Breitbart co-owner Rebekah Mercer, and longtime Clinton antagonist David Bossie of Citizens United. But we donít know yet whether they are prepared to spend tens of thousands of dollars or tens of millions to elect their candidate governor of Florida.

DeSantis has dozens of Floridians on that fundraising team, but conspicuously few of the Florida heavy hitters who typically bankroll winning statewide campaigns.

The bottom line? Donít underestimate DeSantis, but donít assume heís a winner either. The GOP nomination fight is wide open at this early stage.

Costly records

Gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham blasted Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday and accused his administration of hiding documents she requested related to a dozen hurricane-related deaths at a Hollywood, Fla., nursing home.

His administrationís response: We have the documents and will turn them over for $1,200.

Graham, a Democrat and former congresswoman hoping to replace the term-limited Republican governor, claimed in a press release that Scottís administration ignored her Sept. 29 public records request for call logs, text messages and voice mails from a private phone line he made available to Floridaís assisted living facilities and nursing homes ahead of Hurricane Irma.

She requested the records following an evacuation of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, where the hurricane knocked out power, killing more than a dozen frail, elderly residents. Fourteen died after the storm, and 12 of the deaths have been classified as homicides. Multiple lawsuits have been filed.

Graham, who also asked the state to recover voice mails that were transcribed and then deleted after the storm, said Scottís Office of Open Government wiped any mention of her information request from its website.

"Governor Rick Scott does not care about transparency. Throughout his administration he has shown a complete disrespect for the spirit and letter of the Sunshine Laws," Graham said. "Florida used to be proud of our transparency laws. Scott has made a mockery of them."

In reaction to Grahamís email blast, Scottís office sent the candidate a response Thursday that seemed to indicate the phone records had already been scoured by staffers and the records produced, though not distributed. The governorís Office of Open government told Graham the work had taken 100 hours of staff time.

"To produce Governor Rick Scottís September and October 2017 personal phone logs, approximately 100 hours of staff resources have been expended. This has been due to the strenuous time and resources that were dedicated to determining the identification of each individual number on the phone logs, as well as then identifying each call as state related business," the email stated.

At $12 an hour, the state said the records would cost Graham $1,200, a bill referred to as an estimate.

Levine in town

Florida gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine, the former mayor of Miami Beach, will travel around the state next week on a "Live! from Floridaís Living Rooms" tour. Levine will be responding to Gov. Scottís annual State of the State address and in Tampa on Thursday will talk about climate change and the fight against oil-drilling off Floridaís coast.

The Miami Heraldís David Smiley contributed to this weekís Buzz.