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Adam Putnam hasn’t had an opponent as tough as Ron DeSantis

He has chops, cash, charisma and should be a shoo-in, but this is no ordinary election year and DeSantis is tied or slightly ahead in polls.
Adam Putnam, Republican gubernatorial candidate, laughs with Teverris Brown, Kimmins Contracting truck driver from Tampa, while making a campaign stop at Kimmins Contracting in Tampa on April 6. (MONICA HERNDON   |   Times)
Adam Putnam, Republican gubernatorial candidate, laughs with Teverris Brown, Kimmins Contracting truck driver from Tampa, while making a campaign stop at Kimmins Contracting in Tampa on April 6. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Jun. 4, 2018
Updated Jun. 4, 2018

In any normal election year, Adam Putnam would be a shoo-in to be the next Florida governor.

The pride of Bartow has been courting and charming conservative activists across the state for years. He can fire up crowds big and small with red-meat partisan speeches; he's sharp and deeply informed about Florida issues; and, most importantly, he is blowing away fundraising records.

His Republican rival, Ron DeSantis? Prospective supporters and congressional colleagues are at least as likely to describe him as smug as they are to describe him as charming. He can struggle to hold a big crowd's attention when speaking. He is new to Florida issues, and his money raising has underwhelmed a lot of Republicans who expected more.

As of last week, DeSantis, 39, has raised $9.07 million, spent $874,000 and has $8.2 million in his campaign account and separate political committee. Putnam, 43, has raised $29.4 million since he started preparing to run for governor in 2015, spent $13.3 million and has $16.2 million on hand.

In state where it can cost more than $1.5 million a week to run TV ads and neither candidate is well known, having considerably more money can be crucial.

But this is the Donald Trump era, when career politicians are especially suspect. Putnam has never run a campaign at this level, and his central campaign theme — "Florida First" — is hollow. What candidate for Florida governor is not going to put Florida first?

Putnam was barely old enough to buy a beer when he had his last remotely tough campaign, becoming at 22 the youngest member ever elected to the Florida House. He escaped serious challengers in election after election as he moved from the state House, through 10 years in Congress, and eight years as agriculture commissioner.

All the while, Putnam relied mainly on the same stable of political advisers to guide his campaigns. Until recently, those advisers were largely steering his gubernatorial campaign, though he finally brought in a campaign manager two months ago (Brett Prater), and has replaced his longtime TV ad maker.

That hasn't stopped self-inflicted wounds.

Dubbing himself a "proud NRA sellout" probably won't hurt Putnam in the primary, but could in the general election, if he makes it that far. His campaign scheduling a fundraiser last month at the home of an Orlando supporter who had been all over the news years ago for shooting two pet huskies — and then dismissing it as nothing compared to DeSantis receiving financial support from a prominent Democratic donor — was downright moronic.

Still, Putnam is clearly outworking DeSantis on the campaign trail, holding meet and greets, and well-attended rallies. Drawing hundreds of people to events even in the most rural counties counts for something.

"Adam is the only candidate who has shared specific ideas and policies. He is running a Florida-based, grassroots-driven campaign. Our opponent is dialing-it-in from Washington and is running for his third job in three years," said Ward Baker, a senior adviser on the Putnam campaign.

Thanks to DeSantis' almost nightly appearances on Fox News — TV exposure to Republican voters worth millions of dollars — recent public and private polls have consistently shown the two-term congressman and agriculture commissioner tied or DeSantis slightly ahead.

The northeast Florida Republican barely talks about state issues on the rare occasions where he holds campaign events in the state he wants to govern.
He is betting that GOP primary voters in Florida are much more interested in hearing about unfair treatment of Trump or moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem than plans to improve Florida's traffic congestion and public schools.

DeSantis explicitly told this to lobbyists with whom he recently met in Tallahassee, that federal issues matter to Florida Republicans today more than state ones. Being lobbyists in Tallahassee, many of them were skeptical.

Of course, DeSantis' edge in the polls probably won't last long. Putnam has spent more than $7 million on TV ads in the past six weeks promoting his "Florida First" candidacy. A group believed to be tied to Putnam's allies in the sugar industry, the National Liberty Federation, has spent millions more on TV ads falsely claiming DeSantis favored food stamps for illegal immigrants (Pants on Fire, PolitiFact ruled).

What should worry the Florida Firsters is what happens when DeSantis' side starts hitting back. It's only a matter of time before we see commercials targeting Putnam as a career politician and spotlighting his congressional votes for the Wall Street "bailout," congressional pay increases and more.

Putnam and his allies so far are relying on false or flimsy attacks on DeSantis, an Iraq war veteran and Harvard lawyer who has many more solid attacks to damage Putnam with among Republican primary voters.

"Adam Putnam is selling the message of a career politician with a mixed record on fiscal issues and a bad record in immigration issues and a history of insulting the president to Republican primary voters. That's a message the just doesn't sell," said DeSantis campaign manager Brad Herold. "Even if he spends $30 million, he can't hammer a square peg into a round hole."

In March, the DeSantis campaign conducted a poll asking likely primary voters to choose between two unnamed candidates.

Either: "A Navy veteran who served alongside special operations troops in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. He is the top conservative in Florida, endorsed by President Trump, and is running to take on the corrupt establishment in Tallahassee."

Or: "A Florida First conservative leader his entire life. He was one of the youngest people ever elected to Congress and has a proven record of standing up for conservative principles. He's running for governor to continue his fight for liberty and conservative values."

Fifty-five percent went with the first one and 29 percent the second.

None of this may matter in a month. Probably the most important event of the primary occurs June 28 when Fox News' Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum moderate a nationally televised debate in Orlando.

That will be the first introduction many Republican voters have to the two candidates.

"The voters and the media for the most part aren't paying attention yet. Right now, it's all about stocking the war chests and coming up with a strategy on how to most effectively use that war chest in July and August ahead of the primaries," said Ryan Wiggins, a Republican consultant in the Panhandle who is neutral in the gubernatorial race. "If you are drawing attention to your campaign right now, it likely isn't because of something you are doing right, but for something you have or are doing wrong."

Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report.