Guns, bathroom bills and abortion: Putnam, DeSantis take on social issues in first GOP guv forum

Putnam staked out hard-line stances; DeSantis finally faces questions in Florida
The Florida Family Policy Council will host a forum Saturday, May 5 featuring the two leading Republican candidates for governor. Photo courtesy of Florida Family Planning Council.
The Florida Family Policy Council will host a forum Saturday, May 5 featuring the two leading Republican candidates for governor. Photo courtesy of Florida Family Planning Council.
Published May 6, 2018|Updated May 6, 2018

Though he may have the money of an establishment candidate, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam sought to make clear Saturday night in Orlando that he's not ceding the "conservative" label to Rep. Ron DeSantis in the race for Florida's next governor.

At the first Republican candidate forum, Putnam drew hard-line stances on some of the most contentious social issues, backing one of the country's most restrictive abortion policies and staking a position on so-called bathroom bills that a state Democratic Party spokesman immediately denounced as "transphobic rhetoric."

He spoke early and often of his Christian faith and talked about growing up with guns in Bartow.

Meanwhile, DeSantis demonstrated his conservative bonafides by insisting people on government assistance work and promising to nominate strict constructionist judges in the mold of the late-Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

For a candidate who has so far faced few questions except from Fox News anchors, DeSantis, a three-term Florida Congressman, comfortably navigated the forum on topics he had yet to be tested on. Asked by moderator and GOP pollster Frank Luntz for a time when he changed his mind, DeSantis unexpectedly cited a reversal of a previous critique of President Barack Obama.

"When we had the breakout of Ebola and I thought we just gotta shut everything down, Obama didn't do that and I criticized him a lot, DeSantis said. "But I look back on it and it was handled well."

"It was actually an example of government getting the job done," he said.

Putnam, a polished and seasoned politician, often veered into scripted stumping, especially when promoting a new proposal released that day to bring religious groups into his administration. Luntz cut him off a couple times and briefly stumped Putnam when he asked what Republicans have gotten wrong during their time controlling all the levers in Tallahassee.

Putnam eventually said he didn't like how Gov. Rick Scott handled the ousting of Former Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey and that there should be more cabinet meetings in other parts of the state.

While both praised Scott — DeSantis said he was the best role model for governor in his lifetime — neither said they would support one of his top legislative achievements of 2018: the gun legislation approved after the Feb. 14 deadly shooting at Parkland. Lawmakers shouldn't have made it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to buy a firearm, they said, though were more generally supportive of the law's measures to shore up school security and address mental health problems.

"I don't think it's right to say to someone who's 20 years old that it's ok to go to Iraq and Afghanistan and defend freedom and defend liberty with your life but you can't go to a sporting goods store to buy a shotgun," Putnam said, alluding to provisions in the new law that raise the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21.

The forum was hosted by the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative organization that often advocates against gay marriage and abortion. Given the venue, social topics made up a good portion of the 30-minute question and answer session.

Asked about abortion, Putnam said as governor he would he would sign the so-called "heartbeat bill," a version of which Iowa's governor recently approved. The law bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which is about six weeks of pregnancy. The new law is sure to face legal challenges.

Luntz asked both candidates if they would support legislation that allows transgender persons to determine which bathroom they want to use.

"I am not going to sign a bill that allows men in my daughters' restrooms," Putnam said.

DeSantis said he wouldn't either. But he also didn't appear anxious to take action similar to other Republican governors and demand people use the bathroom of the sex assigned to them at birth.

"Getting into bathroom wars, I don't think that's a good use of our time," DeSantis said.

An unknown factor in the race remains House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has yet to say whether he will run for governor. Had he declared, he would have been invited to the forum, organizers said, but he hasn't and his opportunities to get before Republican voters are shrinking with every passing day.

An announcement is expected this week.

President Donald Trump, who has Tweeted support for DeSantis, remains a wildcard as well. Putnam, though, has built up a sizable warchest to counter Trump's amplifying.

Putnam's campaign brought in another $2 million last month, and he had about $20 million between his campaign and political action committee as of April. DeSantis has about $6.5 million.

By the end, the candidates made clear how they would like this race to be shaped going forward. The statewide primary is Aug. 28.

DeSantis played up his military background, juxtaposing his time in the Navy and in overseas conflicts against Putnam's decision to get into politics straight out of college.

"Here we were fighting terrorism and I thought it was important that I be willing to put my money where my mouth is," DeSantis said. "I didn't get forced to go to Iraq, I actively sought it out because I wanted to help in that mission."

Putnam, who previously served in the statehouse and Congress, talked about the importance of a governor who knows every corner of the state and of a candidate who can be seen on the campaign trail. It was a not-so-veiled shot at an opponent that so far has had few appearances in Florida.

"There will be no surprises," he said, "because people will vote for me or against me based on the values people know I have."