In deep red Florida Panhandle, DeSantis and Gaetz campaign on Trump

Congressman Matt Gaetz drew a line in the sand between DeSantis and Adam Putnam, saying only DeSantis truly supports Trump.
Ron DeSantis listens to a voter after posing for a photo on a motorcycle at a campaign event in Pensacola. | Emily L. Mahoney, Times
Ron DeSantis listens to a voter after posing for a photo on a motorcycle at a campaign event in Pensacola. | Emily L. Mahoney, Times
Published June 11, 2018|Updated June 11, 2018

If it wasn't clear by now, Congressmen Matt Gaetz and Ron DeSantis  have been making it crystal clear that the Republican primary in the race for Florida's governor will be a test of President Trump's popularity in the nation's largest swing state.

The Freedom Caucus duo, called "warriors" by Trump, appeared in a handful of Panhandle campaign stops on Saturday as Gaetz runs for reelection and DeSantis makes his bid for governor against Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam.

Before introducing DeSantis, Gaetz made sure the crowd knew that Putnam was late to join Team Trump, ticking it off as "the first reason" why voters shouldn't check the box next to his name in August.

"After Ted Cruz had dropped out of the race, we needed Republicans to come together and rally behind our president," Gaetz said to the roughly 50 people in attendance in Pensacola. "So many of you were making handmade signs and going to rallies and supporting Donald Trump. Adam Putnam said, 'I'll have to wait until after the convention.'"

The two sang the president's praises constantly, telling the friendly crowd about their conversations with Trump on Air Force One to familiar shouts from the audience like "Lock her up!" and "Build the wall!" as if it were a 2016 rally.

Putnam, who has campaigned in many small towns, has criticized DeSantis in the past for  trying to "dial it in from an out-of-state TV studio," referring to his many Fox News appearances.

On Saturday, DeSantis touched on a mixture of both the federal issues that have won him his regular Fox News slot as well as some state topics, as he transitions to straddle both worlds.

On the issue of the special counsel, Trump tweeted a week ago that it is "totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!" DeSantis, speaking to reporters after the event, disagreed with the mechanics but not the sentiment.

"Less so much unconstitutional, if you look at (Deputy Attorney General Rod) Rosenstein's appointing order in May, he did not follow Justice Department guidelines," he said. "I'm not a fan of how Mueller has done it but the original sin is Rosenstein. He superimposed a criminal prosecutor on a counterintelligence investigation and basically said, 'Just find something.'"

On state issues, DeSantis and Gaetz both said they are confident that  Florida has an "exemption" from Trump's expansion of offshore oil drilling. A back-and-forth drama ensued earlier this year when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke publicly announced with Gov. Rick Scott that Florida was off the table, then later said the state was "still in the process."

"I'm not for oil drilling off Florida,"DeSantis said. "I've told the president that. He's going to give Florida the exemption from that. I have no worries about that."

On guns: the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, enacted after 17 students and teachers were killed at the Parkland school in February, was a controversial package of gun rights restrictions and school safety measures that included raising the firearm purchasing age in Florida to 21, banning bump stocks and allowing police to temporarily take guns away from someone they suspect to be mentally unstable.

In recent days, the National Rifle Association has been surveying politicians, asking if they would vote to repeal parts of that new law. It sued Florida immediately after the law passed, as did a separate group of gun owners.

DeSantis offered light criticism of the statute.

"Some folks here had some concerns about when you have blanket restrictions," he said of the event attendees in Pensacola. "Some of those are caught up in the courts and I think you have some live arguments as to why some of those may not pass muster."

Finally, on medical marijuana: last week, Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers gave the state until June 11 to put into action a process that will make smoke-able marijuana available to patients at marijuana dispensaries throughout the state.

DeSantis said the state needs to stop "playing games" and put in place what voters intended.

Florida voters approved medical marijuana via a ballot initiative, but the state has been locked in a legal battle after lawmakers limited its scope by only allowing oils, sprays, tinctures, vaping and edibles, arguing that smoking would lead to a "back door" for recreational use.

"I'm going to implement what the voters wanted to do faithfully and reasonably," DeSantis said.