LECANTO — Many Florida Republicans are skeptical about Adam Putnam's ability to win the gubernatorial nomination in today's GOP.
This is not the climate for a conventional, career politician to succeed with Republican primary voters who helped Donald Trump defeat more than a dozen formidable Republicans in 2016.
Then throw in a decade's worth of Putnam's congressional votes. No amount of campaign money, the thinking goes, is enough for this establishment Republican to win over primary voters after they learn about multiple votes to increase his own congressional salary, his support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, or his vote to bail out Wall Street.
But the doubters should have braved the near-freezing weather Jan. 18 at the M&B Dairy in Citrus County along with more than 400 hardy souls who turned out for a gubernatorial rally for Putnam. Even on a pleasant evening, drawing hundreds of people to a campaign event in the first month of an election year is a big deal.
No, you don't win statewide elections in Florida by drawing a few hundred people to periodic barbecue rallies. But nor should you dismiss the significance of crowds.
Politicians can fake a lot of things, but not their affinity for mingling with everyday voters. Some thrive on it, many don't.
Putnam has significant hurdles and vulnerabilities to overcome. But watching the red-haired agriculture commissioner hug, joke and chat with person after person in the cold, it was clear he has a big advantage over his rivals: innate political skill and that coveted trait of authenticity.
"He's a good, ole Florida boy, and Adam's always stayed in touch with the people," said George Roberts, a 57-year-old engineer from Dunellon.
Like a remarkable number of people munching on fried okra, brisket and ribs as a band played Lynyrd Skynyrd, Roberts knows Putnam personally.
Warming herself near the roaring bonfire, retired nurse Marilou Ondra of Lakeland said she is such a fan of arch-conservative gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, she calls him "DeSaintis." But she enthusiastically supports Putnam and believes many fellow Trump fans in Florida won't pay a great deal of attention to the president's recent public embrace of DeSantis' candidacy.
"They don't really understand the politics here," Ondra said of DeSantis' support from the White House and assorted conservative interest groups in Washington. "I like DeSaintis, but there's no comparison between him and Adam. Adam has a much, much better understanding of Florida and what he wants to do to improve Florida."
DeSantis, a 39-year-old Iraq War veteran who grew up Pinellas County and now lives in northeast Florida, appears to be the main threat to Putnam. Not only has Trump anointed the tea party conservative as his favorite, but so have some of the country's biggest Republican donors, including Rebekah Mercer and Sheldon Adelson. He appears constantly on Fox News, publicity that otherwise could require millions of dollars in TV ad spending.
"No one is denying the skills Adam Putnam has honed over two decades as a career politician," said DeSantis adviser Brad Herold, who works for the consulting firm that helped Marco Rubio win his Senate seat. "We just think Florida conservatives are looking for someone who's had a job outside of politics in their life."
Putnam, a fifth-generation Floridian from a prominent agriculture family in Polk County, was elected to the Florida House at age 22. He moved on to the U.S. House at age 26, and then agriculture commissioner at age 36.
Also gearing up to run is Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes, who could have a hard time positioning himself as the true conservative in a primary against DeSantis. Corcoran has lined up top-tier consultants, but says he won't decide on running until the legislative session ends in March. The session gives him an opportunity to raise his public profile, but Corcoran can't raise money until after it ends, when his money-raising ability could subside along with his influence.
Putnam has proven himself to be a champion fundraiser, drawing heavily on support from agriculture interests and utilities.
By the end of 2017, Putnam had $16.2 million in his campaign accounts, Corcoran had $5.1 million, and DeSantis $2.5 million.
Skeptics see Putnam as another Jeb Bush: Loads of money and GOP establishment support, full of substance and policy chops, but out of step with today's angry, hard-right Republican base.
Putnam, 43, has spent decades attending local and state GOP chicken dinners and picnics. He is popular among local Republican Party activists across the state, and far better known than Corcoran and DeSantis.
DeSantis doesn't have many friends among fellow U.S. House members, let alone widespread affection among grass-roots activists. Corcoran is far more accustomed to back-room strategizing with political insiders than courting and listening to constituents.
"The most important thing in a campaign is the candidate, and Adam Putnam is a natural," said Tony DiMatteo, former chairman of the Pinellas Republican Party. "Likeability in a campaign for governor is really important, and Adam is well-known and well-liked."
He likened Putnam to Florida Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, maybe not the most exciting politician, but a gentleman.
"What can you say bad about the guy?" said DiMatteo, who early on supported and predicted victory for Senate candidate Marco Rubio in 2010 and presidential candidate Trump in 2016, when few people gave them a chance. "Adam Putnam will be our next governor, and I am more confident about that than I was with either Rubio or Trump."
All three major Republican contenders for governor grew up in Florida, but Putnam makes a convincing case that he understands Florida best. DeSantis and Corcoran often sound like they would prefer to talk about the founding fathers and Ayn Rand than the everyday needs of Floridians.
"I have travelled every highway and byway in the state. I'm a product of our small towns, I know all of our communities, I know the diversity of our state, I know the state's needs, and I know how to bring people together to solve our problems," Putnam told the Tampa Bay Times.
He may not be Trump's top choice, but, like Corcoran, Putnam has little negative to say about the president.
"Look at the Dow at 26,000," he said, "look at businesses investing because they don't believe the federal bureaucracy is waking up every day trying to put up new impediments to creating jobs."
He shrugged off a question about whether the timing was off for this boyish veteran of state and national Republican politics, whether primary voters want a more combative and uncompromising candidate. He motioned to the hundreds of people just starting to leave his dairy farm rally.
"A lot has changed in politics," Putnam said, "but one thing that hasn't is that people still matter."