A given in this year's Republican primary for governor is that the probable frontrunners need to emphasize how tough they are on immigration to lock up the nomination in August.

But the voting records of all three likely candidates — Richard Corcoran, Ron DeSantis and Adam Putnam — reveal exceptions to their current hardline stances, a reminder of how Florida's Republicans have been transformed by the "BUILD THE WALL!" orthodoxy of President Donald Trump's nationalist movement.

One Republican who has witnessed this metamorphosis over the past few years, former House Speaker Will Weatherford, said the lurch to the right on immigration is troubling. While Republicans have always been conservative on immigration issues, the messaging has changed, he said.

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"The Republican party, they've made this issue a political football," Weatherford said. "The truth is, we do have an immigration problem but by demagoguing the issue and not bringing forth real solutions, it's alienating the Republican party from a very important voter base. But more importantly, it's not the right thing to do."

Weatherford, a conservative Republican from Wesley Chapel, served as speaker from 2012 to 2014 when he championed legislation that helped Dreamers, or undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and spared deportation by President Barack Obama.

While Weatherford said he received Republican pushback, it was a different era. Obama had just won re-election by dominating the Hispanic vote, leaving behind a GOP that grappled with how to broaden the party's appeal.
In 2013, the Florida House led by Weatherford voted to grant drivers' licenses to Dreamers.

Corcoran, then a regular House member who was set to become Speaker himself in 2016, voted for the bill. While most other House Republicans did too, those votes haven't aged well for GOP primary voters in today's political climate.

Corcoran has not officially joined the governor's race but is expected to announce in the coming weeks.

"Ron DeSantis would've voted against" that legislation, said Brad Herold, spokesman for that campaign. DeSantis was endorsed by Trump himself and, before that, former Arizona Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, who was convicted for contempt of court for continuing illegal racial profiling practices. On Thursday, DeSantis announced he would convene a congressional hearing on the "caravan" of migrants fleeing Central America.

Corcoran provides little defense of that vote now. As Speaker, he pushed legislation this year that prohibited "sanctuary city" policies that restrict local law enforcement from fully cooperating with federal immigration officials. Although the legislation failed, Corcoran gained widespread attention with an ad in January that warned everyone faced a greater threat of violence, and death, from undocumented immigrants without such a policy in place.

Responding to questions about the "Dreamers" bill, Corcoran said he welcomed criticism of his record if it means taking a microscope to his opponents.

"They can hit me on it. The only reason they're talking about it is because they've scoured my voting record," he said. "Their records, both of those two, is abysmal. They voted to give amnesty and they're scrambling to find one single vote that they can say, well, he (Corcoran) is not an A-plus on immigration."

In the DeSantis camp, Corcoran may be referring to a vote the Florida Congressman cast in 2014 in favor of the "Agricultural Guest Worker Act."

The bill, which never became law, aimed to create a program for migrant workers to obtain temporary visas to work in the American agriculture industry. However, it requires undocumented migrants to be deported to their home countries before applying for the visa.

"Ron DeSantis does not and has not supported a pathway to citizenship," Herold said when asked about this vote. "Amnesty" is a hard-to-define political buzzword but it typically refers to pathways to citizenship.

Before becoming Commissioner of Agriculture in 2011, Putnam served in the U.S. House from 2001 to 2010. While in Washington, he cosponsored a bill with Arizona Republicans which would have allowed undocumented immigrants to get temporary work visas after a six year waiting period and a $1,500 fine. Putnam also cosponsored agriculture bills which would have granted "blue cards" to undocumented farm workers who could eventually apply for green cards.

Additionally, as Florida's agriculture commissioner, Putnam threw his support behind the now-famous "Gang of Eight" bipartisan immigration overhaul bill in Congress which would have allowed for a path to legal status. It failed.

"Adam Putnam has a clear record against amnesty, against illegal immigration and against sanctuary cities," said Amanda Bevis, spokesperson for Putnam's campaign.

Weatherford said the success of the "Dreamers" bills during his tenure shows that compromise is possible.

"That would require people to not use it to arm themselves to use as ammunition against their opponents," he said. "It's been the last 8 to 10 years, it's part of the fear-based political campaigns we've seen … This issue has reached an apex."

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this story.