WASHINGTON — For two years, as chairman of the House Republican Conference, Adam Putnam managed the daily message and served as his party's pit bull in chief. It was a job that kept him in the national spotlight and then, after the November election, threatened to make him irrelevant.
So he quit.
Which is why on recent spring day, as Republican House leaders rallied their troops to warn of the liberals' latest "economic declaration of war" on America, the Florida representative was free to spend the morning at the White House conferring with members of President Barack Obama's Cabinet and Democratic lawmakers about his bill on food safety.
This is not the sort of topic that lights up the switchboards for conservative talk radio, but "a mid-tier issue," Putnam readily admits, "that is just a swine flu outbreak or a salmonella outbreak away from being a top-tier issue."
Putnam makes no apologies for his priorities. While the Grand Old Party suffers through an identity crisis pitting its moderates and its ideological purists, Putnam has embarked on a personal and political quest to reconcile his avowed conservatism with his desire to govern, and to win elections. Right now that path leads away from the gaggle of Republican leaders lambasting liberals for their "socialism" and toward the orange groves of east Hillsborough County, the peanut fields of North Florida, and the timber stands of the Panhandle.
For those looking for the future of the Republican Party, he might just be the guy running for agriculture commissioner of Florida.
"We're in tough times, and people are anxious, they're scared, they're frustrated, they're angry," Putnam said in an interview in his spacious fourth-floor office, across from the Capitol. "And they don't see a lot of relevant solutions coming from the Republican Party right now."
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Adam Putnam could have been the speaker of the House.
Smart, likable and savvy in policy and politics, Putnam was tapped by the GOP leadership as a rising star the moment he arrived in Washington in 2001, at age 26. He was squeaky-clean and well-off, thanks to the family cattle and citrus business in Bartow. His wife, Melissa, didn't mind him spending most weeks in Washington, even as their family grew to include four kids.
In late 2006, Putnam was elected chairman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 job. Democrats and Republicans alike figured it was just a stop on the way to No. 1.
Then came Election Day 2008.
By 11 that night, the Republican Party was in shambles — Barack Obama had taken the White House, and Florida along with it. The Democrats were poised to win 20 more seats in the House and neared a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate.
Home in Bartow, Putnam called House Republican Leader John Boehner on his cell phone and surprised him with the news he wouldn't seek re-election as conference chairman.
Even as the House Republican mouthpiece, Putnam had earned more respect by listening well than by talking. "He gets this pensive look on his face, very serious," former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a mentor, explained, "and may sit for 45 minutes and not say a thing."
That night, Putnam heard what the voters were saying.
"I believe it is time to step off the leadership ladder and return my focus to crafting public policy solutions for America's generational challenges," Putnam wrote to his colleagues.
"With the issues before us today come bipartisan opportunities and partisan differences. My current role obligates me to the latter and too often excludes me from the former."
Three months later, he went one step further. He announced he would leave the House at the end of his term and run for agriculture commissioner.
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For a young Republican with ambition, this is not a bad time to trade the marble halls of the Capitol for the fields of Florida.
A recent Gallup poll found just 21 percent of Americans consider themselves Republicans, fewer than at any point since 1983.
In Florida, the struggle for the party's soul is embodied in the coming U.S. Senate primary between Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate and the state's most popular politician, and Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the state House and a conservative favorite.
Putnam is no moderate, having voted with his party well over 90 percent of the time during his congressional career, according to Congressional Quarterly, and he's a reliable vote against taxes, gun control, abortion rights and same-sex marriage. His political philosophy is more like Rubio's, but he says he values Crist's emphasis on cooperation over confrontation.
"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," he said.
That means Republicans must articulate real alternatives to Democratic ideas now moving through Congress. He says Republicans have done that on energy by pushing an "all of the above" approach, which emphasizes more drilling for oil and natural gas alongside conservation and renewable energy, but have not done it on the economy and health care.
"It's not enough to say we don't want to have national health care," Putnam said. "We have to be talking about our … ideas for small business health care and the ability to purchase health care across state lines, because ultimately somebody is sitting around the kitchen table right now, wondering how they're going to cover their next well-child checkup.
"But solving that problem doesn't require the government taking over one-seventh of the U.S. economy."
Putnam's ideas on the hot issues of the day don't differ much from his party's. What's different is his demeanor, and his willingness to seek compromise, "rather than just lobbing grenades at the other side." That, coupled with his intellect, is a big reason why many Democrats view Putnam as formidable, and someone they can work with.
When he was conference chair, his Democratic counterpart was Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, who is now Obama's chief of staff. Frustrated by how congressional debates devolved into food fights, the two traveled the country together to talk about national security, energy and health care.
"Could he be pragmatic?" Emanuel says, repeating a question. "The better way I would describe it is he is a strong philosophical conservative, but he does not personalize those differences he has with people on the other side."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Broward County and a longtime friend, says Putnam's stint as conference chairman didn't suit his personality.
"He sort of strayed from his normal pragmatism, and I think it made him noticeably uncomfortable. I think he's more comfortable — I don't want to say straddling the middle — near the middle."
Virtually everyone in Florida politics sees Putnam's bid for agriculture commissioner as a placeholder until he can run for governor, a chance to build his resume and name recognition in a job that isn't overtly political.
When Congress is out of session and he's not fishing with his kids, Putnam is cruising the back roads of Florida as candidate for agriculture commissioner, talking about how biomass could help Florida meet new goals for renewable energy and how he wants federal money to combat the ambrosia beetle, which is spreading deadly fungus to avocado trees.
He faces a primary race against state Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, but Putnam is backed by most of the state's major agricultural groups and has raised nearly five times as much money this year. He is clearly the farmer to beat.
But Florida is changing politically, and it is uncertain that Putnam's brand of conservatism will still hold statewide appeal when he's done chasing ambrosia beetles. Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in 12 years. Democrats have added two U.S. House seats in the past two elections. And regardless of party, the politicians doing best these days, from Crist to Democratic Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, are moderates.
Putnam doesn't sound worried. Politics is cyclical, and change can be swift. "In 1976, Jimmy Carter wins, and four years later you get Ronald Reagan," he says.
He certainly has time to complete his quest to find his place within the party, or try to bend the party to him. The next chance he'll have to run for governor, in 2014, he'll be only 40.
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.