U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, 34, (R-Bartow), decided late last year not to run for re-election as the House Republicans' third-ranking leader. Instead he is running for commissioner of agriculture in Florida.
He sat down with the St. Petersburg Times recently to talk about some of the challenges facing the Republican Party, and the leaders who are trying to meet them.
Times: Four years ago, the Republicans controlled the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and the White House. Now you control none of them. How can the GOP begin to recover? Is it still too obsessed with hot-button cultural issues that no longer win elections?
Putnam: "The party's commitment to family ... and the party's commitment to allowing faith to have a role in people's lives is pretty well understood. That's an established brand. What the party has to focus on are the issues that relate to the anxiety and concerns that people are experiencing today in a way that reinforces the ideas of choice, and independence, and liberty and entrepreneurialism."
Times: The Republicans used to have a much better campaign machine than the Democrats, but those roles were reversed in 2008. What happened?
Putnam: "The Internet, social networking, that is not a left-wing conspiracy. When our presidential candidate essentially said, 'I don't do that Internet thing,' not only did he turn off a whole generation, he became irrelevant ... to a vast swath of Americans. ... It's very important that we not cede cyberspace to the Democratic Party and we not cede young voters to the Democratic Party."
Times: Democrats contend the Republican Party is so bereft that its de facto leaders are former Vice President Dick Cheney, who is on the circuit, and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Are they helping or hurting?
Putnam: "Cheney's comments, I think, are an attempt to in his view set the record straight about the Bush years. … Limbaugh is in a different category than Cheney because he has to have something to talk about every day for several hours a day. It's not NPR. It is not designed in that air time to bring people together around some common solution.
"It is designed to make a very clear, black-and-white distinction on the issues and to keep them coming back for more, to give people something memorable to think about during the day, and to deliver that message in an entertaining way. I'm not dismissing him as merely an entertainer — Rush gets the base fired up, and the hagiography of Ronald Reagan and all of that is very important because it's a call to arms for all of the people who think the party is dragging. But he can't be the only voice in the woods for the conservative movement and the Republican Party."
Times: Florida Republicans are preparing for a potentially bloody Senate primary between Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate, and former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a conservative. Whom do you identify with?
Putnam: "I am more conservative than Charlie Crist. But the truth is he has done a remarkable job of attracting support from non-traditional areas for Republican candidates (by) kind of blending together a Jack Kemp message on housing and a Jeb Bush message on education and a Teddy Roosevelt message on conservation, and really using that to make a substantive difference in Florida's public policy."
Times: So you identify more with Crist?
Putnam: "I wouldn't say that, either. I'd like to see the governor use his tremendous political capital to make some bold decisions for Florida, and not just storing it away for a later date, but to really use it to bring about changes in how we deal with the higher education system, building a world-class education system."
Times: And Rubio?
Putnam: "He has great energy, charisma and eloquence for the conservative movement that's missing at the state and national level, and we absolutely have to find a place for him in any number of ways to help us rebuild our party."
Times: Were senior Republicans in Washington, including Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida and Mitch McConnell, the party's Senate leader, wise to rush out and endorse Crist over Rubio?
Putnam: "It's to be expected that the (party) would want the safest candidate at the top of the ticket. ... It wasn't an ideological move as much as it was a prudent move. ... But the party, I think, has to be careful when they're messing around with primaries. ... There's a danger to it."
Times: In the wake of the 2008 election, the national ticket candidate who was most loved by the Republican base, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was also the candidate that swing voters liked the least. Does that disconnect between what the base likes and what swing voters like present a problem for the GOP?
Putnam: "For all of the passion that she generated among the delegates on the convention floor, there was an equal and opposite reaction among New England, Northeastern and West Coast voters that proved counterproductive in the areas that we needed ... to win a national election. That's not to say that she didn't also reach into communities, like the special needs community, that were also non-traditional Republican voters, but it wasn't enough to offset the people she pushed away.
"If she desires to make a return to the national stage, she's going to have to deal with the suburbs."
Times: You're a fifth-generation cattle and citrus grower from Polk County. But why should the vast majority of Floridians, who don't live on farms, care about the race for agriculture commissioner?
Putnam: "Issues that impact land use and agricultural producers in undeveloped parts of the state impact the environment and the development of the developed parts of the state.
"The commissioner of agriculture is 25 percent of the Cabinet vote, 25 percent of the board of directors of the state of Florida. If you are in a condo in Boca Raton or on a peanut farm in Alford, you have an interest in strong leadership with a vision for Florida in that Cabinet."