Key unanswered questions about Ron DeSantis’ prospects for governor

Constant Fox News hits should help a lot in the primary, but DeSantis is still largely untested
Published Jan. 8, 2018|Updated Jan. 8, 2018

Donald Trump's 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 on the ground 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 the campaign of 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."

Putnam's 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 Trump's 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 Foundation's 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 today's Republican primary voter, but if Trump's 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 — among them casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, Breitbart co-owner Rebekah Mercer, and longtime Clinton antagonist David Bossie of Citizens United. But we don't 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. In his Jacksonville area home turf, for instance, Putnam raised more than $500,000 in one day, with help from the likes of GOP money men such as  Tom Petway, Jay Demetree, Peter Rummell, David Hutson, and Randy Ringhaver.

The bottom line? Don't underestimate DeSantis, but don't assume he's a winner either. The GOP nomination fight is wide open at this early stage.